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‘Table Is Now Set’ for Historic Climate Deal in Paris

But many issues are still far from resolved.

At the midpoint of the Paris climate talks, veterans of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are feeling an unfamiliar sense of optimism. Negotiating teams have had a productive first week—that itself a rare, if not unprecedented, occurrence—and have whittled down hundreds of pages of draft agreement text to just 21 streamlined pages.

"At this point in Copenhagen we were dealing with a 300-page text and a pervasive sense of despair,” said Martin Kaiser, international climate negotiations head at Greenpeace. “In Paris we're down to a slim 21 pages and the atmosphere remains constructive.”

These pages have been turned over to French Foreign Minister and COP21 President Laurent Fabius, who will set the ground rules and lay out the course for how this draft text can become a true international agreement. “For the first time in history we’ve tabled serious and systematic climate action commitments from over 90 percent of the world’s emitters,” added Rhea Suh, president of NRDC.

To be clear, these evaluations are grading on a curve. Most years, the first week of a COP is little more than grandstanding and parties digging in their heels on their respective positions. Most years, a draft text grows over the first week—as more parties insert their wants and demands as options. This year, the first week has brought compromise, and a manageable text.

The Draft Paris Outcome includes some tentative accords on the language of various sticking points, but actual numbers and specifics are still on the table for week two.

The Stickiest Points are Still Sticky

Though there has been encouraging progress on a lot of the language, some key specifics and all of the key numbers are still unsettled.

Consider the issue of the long-term goal. This concept is both largely symbolic, and extremely important to the least developed and most vulnerable countries. Some talk of a long-term goal in terms of limiting temperature increase to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celcius. Some talk more generally of “stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous climate change,” as was written into the original UNFCCC charter. Others argue for long-term goals like phasing out fossil fuels entirely, or cutting carbon emissions to zero by a certain year.

Similarly, a system for how to keep track of increase emissions reductions over coming years and decades – the so-called ratcheting mechanism – is still wide open for negotiation.

What happens now?

When filling in these details, expect rich countries to try to “buy” their way to less aggressive long-term emissions goals and less stringent oversight with promises of money for adaptation and clean energy for developing countries.

Now that the COP president holds the draft, he’ll pass it along to environment and foreign ministers for high-level negotiations that could potentially result in an global deal by week's end. Typically the talks would break until Monday, but in another unprecedented development, these top-level negotiations are kicking off on Sunday afternoon.

There is also the risk that as the ministers take over, old divisions between nations and blocs will fracture anew. Even greater is the risk that meaningful common ground simply cannot be found. All it takes is one nation to undo all the progress and compromise that has delivered this draft text.

Kaiser, of Greenpeace, fears that “right now the oil-producing nations and the fossil fuel industry will be plotting how to crash these talks.”

Besides the outside threat from the fossil fuel industry PR apologists in and around Paris, one country that cause such a crash is Saudi Arabia. During the first week, the Saudi delegation was probably the least constructive. Despite being one of the world’s richest nations (13th in wealth per capita, 14th largest GDP), the party refused to make any financial commitment for climate funds, and is one of the handful of countries that didn’t pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Saudi team has also argued against certain human rights language, and also actively blocked reference to a 1.5-degree Celcius long-term goal, upsetting the Alliance of Small Island States, for whom the 1.5 degrees threshhold is a matter of actual survival.

Even given the Saudi resistance, folks who have been watching these climate talks since their inception feel that something historic could be accomplished this week.

Jennifer Morgan of World Resources Institute said on Saturday, “Though there is plenty of hard work ahead, the table is now set for ministers to get this done.” As long as none of the dinner guests make a big mess of things, in a week the world may have a landmark climate deal.

Photo: Activists show their demand for a long-term goal. Crédit: Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Spectral Q

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