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Delegates Up ‘Past Midnight’ as Paris Climate Summit Heads Into Overtime

Which nations need to compromise before the world arrives at a fair, ambitious deal?

Delegates Up ‘Past Midnight’ as Paris Climate Summit Heads Into Overtime

Negotiators from the Maldives look through the latest draft before overnight meetings.Photo: IISD Reporting Services

The mood is mostly optimistic in Paris as the climate talks come to a close. All signs suggest that an agreement is imminent—though it may not come as quickly as promised. The French leaders running COP21 have been so hopeful, in fact, that they insisted a final deal would be delivered by Friday.


Now that Friday is here, there’s still no agreement—though veterans of the U.N. climate circuit weren’t fooled. Officially, it’s the last scheduled day of the conference. But here in Paris, most of the NGO insiders I’m talking to booked their flights home for Monday or Tuesday, as have veteran journalists who’ve got more than a few of these summits under their belts. One well-known business media platform has even been collecting bids for a “When will COP21 end?” betting pool—and most participants have so far wagered that late Saturday or Sunday will be the winner.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who as of Thursday night still stubbornly clung to his statement that the talks would finish on time on Friday, had admitted defeat on the punctuality point of order by Friday morning. “I will not present the text Friday evening, as I had thought, but Saturday morning,” he said. “There is still work to do. Things are going in the right direction.”

True to form, on the eve of the talks’ scheduled final day, informal meetings—referred to here as indabas, a Zulu word for “meeting”—went straight through the night. A draft text that was due at 3 p.m. Thursday wasn’t delivered until 9 p.m., forcing the indabas to go into the graveyard shift. Meetings started back up around 11 p.m., and most sessions lasted past 5 a.m. One dragged on until 8 a.m.

Neither the public observers nor the press are allowed in these closed-door meetings, but details have been trickling out. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was up past 2 a.m., actively involved in the meetings, reportedly making emotional pleas to his foreign counterparts.

“Past midnight in Paris for #COP21. Everyone working hard. A critical moment, an opportunity we can't afford to miss.” —Secretary of State John Kerry via Twitter

As journalists, analysts, and experts wait around for something concrete to report—and activists continue pushing world leaders to fight for ambitious language and promises in the deal—it may come as a surprise to learn that most of the negotiators themselves are essentially finished.

How’s that? The deal-making now lies in the hands of lawyers and leaders, not those who have spent the long months getting the text to this manageable size. Lawyers are tackling language, while high-level foreign ministers like Kerry weigh in on the hardest, most divisive issues. A few at the very top of the official delegation—such as lead negotiator Todd Stern and his right-hand man, Trigg Talley—are still on the clock, but most lower-level delegates are free to traipse about the City of Light.

Attention has now turned to the remaining points of contention. Despite the fact that the deal is dragging on, agreement is getting closer, as made clear by “open brackets”—essentially, lines of text in the draft that are being disputed—and “options.” Leaving options open has helped the agreement move along smoothly. But now it’s time to narrow things down by eliminating alternatives. According to ParisAgreement.org, the draft text up for debate last Thursday, December 3, contained 1,080 open brackets, along with 72 options. By Wednesday, December 9, only 226 open brackets remained, and options were down to 34.

As of this afternoon, the draft is down to only 32 open brackets and 11 options. That kind of headway is astonishing, really. It’s getting close. But the final agreement will need to contain no brackets or options at all. Just “clean text,” as insiders like to say around here.

There’s no way around it—it’s going to be quite a feat to close this gap. The major sticking points are the same as they were yesterday, two weeks ago, even a month ago: It all comes down to a fight between rich and poor. So, who needs to give a little more right now?

The United States

America was the villain in these climate talks for a decade, pivoting a few years ago to a more constructive position. The country has come a long way, but is still notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to providing financial assistance to nations in need as the world transitions to a more climate-friendly future. If the United States offered more funds for clean energy, adaptation, and loss and damage, it would help unlock the ambitious oversight that is needed from China and India.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis were just awarded a top “prize” by Climate Action Network International—the Colossal Fossil—“for the country that has done the most to do the least at COP21.” Their delegates have apparently been aggressive in trying to block any mention of the ambitious 1.5-degree Celsius target, which vulnerable island nations see as a very real issue of survival.

India

India doesn’t want any oversight, nor does it feel any obligation to actually cap its greenhouse gas emissions. But if rich countries offer enough finance to help India move over to a healthier, cleaner energy path on its road to development, India should promise that its burgeoning economy does not become a carbon bomb. After all, the country is itself one of the most climate-vulnerable in the world.

China

Nobody has done more than China to change the course of the climate talks from Copenhagen to today. Not the United States. Not Canada or Australia, both of whom recently managed to vote out climate-change-denying governments. Against all odds, China has managed to make the most dramatic 180-degree turn. Yet to get a deal done this weekend, they’ve got to do even more. Like India, China needs to ensure that that its massive, upwardly mobile population doesn’t single-handedly cook the planet. The deal currently on the table really wouldn’t have to hurt China at all, so long as the financial promises made by rich countries are generous and ensure that China won’t soon be expected to pay for the most vulnerable to adapt.

France

The host of COP21 has done a tremendously good job to facilitate this incredibly urgent summit. The fact that so much progress has been made—let alone in the wake of incredibly tragedy—is a near-unprecedented accomplishment. But this is the hard part. After what will surely be another long night of meetings, sometime tomorrow morning Laurent Fabius’s team will be drafting and releasing what everyone in Le Bourget hopes is the final draft—and the text must be clean. No more brackets, no more options.

If, as expected, that final draft successfully straddles the line between fair and ambitious—and Fabius has found consensus—it will be impossible to overstate it: COP21 will be remembered as one of history’s truly great diplomatic achievements.

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