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The Huge, Secret Coalition That Could Deliver a Climate Win in Paris

More than 100 nations are ready to speak with a single voice, but two critical countries remain on the outside.

Todd Stern huddles with delegates from all around the world back in 2013. A better spirit of collaboration reigns today. Photo: IISD Reporting Services

After holding discussions in secret for six months, a major coalition of the world’s richest and poorest countries revealed their alliance on Tuesday evening in Paris—a bombshell announcement that promises to set the tone for the last three official days of negotiations, as world leaders move closer to finalizing the draft of an agreement that was just released today.

The group, which is calling itself the “high ambition coalition,” includes the United States, the European Union, and 79 African, Pacific, and Caribbean countries. As first reported in The Guardian, the major new negotiating bloc will speak with a unified voice on four particular issues:

“They want an agreement at Paris to be legally binding; to set a clear long-term goal on global warming that is in line with scientific advice; to introduce a mechanism for reviewing countries’ emissions commitments every five years; and create a unified system for tracking countries’ progress on meeting their carbon goals.”

If you were to plot the ambitions of various sections of the deal on a spectrum, these positions are all firmly on the positive end of what could be expected from a Paris agreement. And, frankly, these positions are high-water marks in the 23-year history of U.S. positions at the U.N. climate negotiations. In contrast, at the 2009 Copenhagen talks there was no U.S. support for a legally binding deal. And from 2001 through 2007, there was essentially no U.S. support for any agreement whatsoever.

The specifics, however, are still unclear, as none of the nations, including the United States, have yet made their exact positions known on the various issues. (Will every aspect of the agreement be legally binding, or just some? Does a long-term goal to reach a certain temperature maximum matter if nations don’t have practical plans in place to regulate emissions?)

But the most vulnerable island nations have been unwaveringly clear and explicit that the 1.5-degree goal is essential, and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll weaken their stance over the next few days. If global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the small island states stand a chance of staying above water. At 2 degrees of warming, the islands themselves likely won’t last the century. The 1.5-degree target is quite literally an existential red line, or point of no return, for certain small island states.

According to The Guardian’s report, which goes into great detail about the secret meetings, the idea for this broad coalition of the rich and the vulnerable was hatched six months ago over drinks, and Tony deBrum of the Marshall Islands (who we profiled last week) was the “brilliant mind behind it,” as described by another negotiator.

Notably absent from the group are China and India. How those powerhouses react to the news of the secret talks—and their willingness to move off of some firmly entrenched positions—will go a long way to determining if we get a deal, when we get a deal, and how watered down it will wind up being.

In his speech today at COP21, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly confirmed the United States’ participation in the coalition. Though he didn’t call out any member countries by name, it was clear from his remarks that the coalition will be pressuring China and India—and other rapidly industrializing countries—to commit to five-year reviews of climate action, legally binding language, strong emissions-tracking measures, and ambitious long-term goals. These are all points that China and India have long said should apply only to historically rich, industrialized nations.

So what happens now?

The coalition’s positions, as revealed to The Guardian, fall into different issue areas: what a temperature target may be, how often we look at these targets and try to improve them, and whether any of this is actually legally binding. Each issue is framed around topics to which French Foreign Minister and COP21 President Laurent Fabius has already convened special consultations and assigned facilitators.

Together, the 14 facilitators working on these issues form the Comité de Paris, where progress on each issue is shared and solutions crafted. Fabius and his top aides then aggregate the discussion into a draft text of the formal agreement—the entire purpose of COP21—that was released this afternoon.

So how is that current draft? According to Jennifer Morgan, of the World Resources Institute, “Almost everything we need for an ambitious, equitable agreement is still in play.” Most years, by this point in the talks, climate advocates and vulnerable nations are still fighting to put deleted items back into the text. So in that sense, prospects are good.

“[It’s in the] coming hours [that] the details and precision of this text—which is what really matters to its effectiveness—will be figured out,” Morgan said during a quick huddle after her team had time to digest the latest text. “If it’s to be a durable and ambitious agreement, then things in here need to stay.”

Morgan said that nothing in the new draft “reveals any significant concessions from any parties.” In other words, nobody has really caved yet. “Issues that are near and dear are issues that will be dealt with tonight and tomorrow … There’s obviously an immense amount of work to be done over the next 24 hours.”

Mohamed Adow, of Christian Aid, echoed her sentiment: “The next 24 hours are critical. This is where the real negotiations will begin. We really need countries to fight to keep in the high ambition options on climate finance, the long-term decarbonization goal, and a ratchet mechanism to ensure the agreement evolves to meet the needs of a changing world.”

As negotiations continue into the home stretch of COP21, the Comité was scheduled to meet twice more on Wednesday to go through the draft text and work on reconciling differences, a process that could last deep into the night. At this point late stage in the talks, the fate of the treaty is almost entirely in the hands of the leaders and the lawyers. A delegate from the U.S. State Department said, in an informal, off the record conversation, that the work of the negotiating team is pretty much done. The lawyers now handle the language and the heads of state and foreign ministers run the hardball negotiations over the specific numbers and positions.

Fabius has said that he wants a final text agreed upon by the end of the day Thursday, so that copies can be sent to capitals all over the world for final sign-off on Friday.

If past COPs are any indication, that timeline is more than a little bit ambitious. But, of course, high ambitions seem to be a theme that more and more leaders are getting behind these days.

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