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From Warsaw to Paris : converting the try in climate negotiations

Antoine Ebel - Varsovie, Pologne - date fmt jour mois annee

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It is Friday evening in Warsaw, an icy night in November 2013. For the international climate negotiations that have lasted for two weeks already, this Friday evening is a deadline. The plane tickets have been booked for the participants to return home the following day. By now, they should be putting the final touches to the decision texts, preparing for them to be approved in the plenary session. There is still a long way to go. The clock is ticking and the prospect of the COP (annual UN conference) reaching no joint decision seems plausible.

With just two years left before the deadline that the countries have set themselves for reaching a global climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, everyone fears a lack of progress in Warsaw. And for France, which has just been officially selected to host the 21st COP in 2015 – precisely the one that is supposed to lead to an agreement – it would not bode well.

To huddle or not to huddle…

Since there is no longer time to respect procedural constraints, everyone leaves their seats and gathers in the middle of the assembly room, crowded together in a huddle.

It could almost be compared to a rugby scrum – in more ways than one, since negotiating is often physically gruelling. It is the opportunity for the negotiators to be open with one another, to clarify the points on which they disagree and, above all, to come up with wording that everyone accepts.

There are no secrets : this conversation happens in plain sight, and everyone can take part, as long as they can squeeze their way in. Then, all the compromises will be immediately submitted to all the countries for approval. There is no question of a repeat of Copenhagen where, in 2009, a handful of Heads of State shut themselves away to write a political agreement which was then rejected in plenary by countries that were furious to have been excluded. Transparency is the order of the day.

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Un "huddle" : regroupement au milieu de l’hémicycle, en toute transparence | Photo : MAEDI

At the centre of the scrum there are familiar faces, emblematic of climate negotiations. There is the American Todd Stern, who helped to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol back in1997 ; and the Venezuelan Claudia Salerno, who is known for making impassioned statements. They represent the two extremes in the struggle between developed countries, which feel that they should no longer be the only ones responsible for reducing emissions, and developing countries, which demand the right to be able to develop freely. Around Todd and Claudia there are participants from Europe, China, Brazil and small island States, who intervene and sometimes object. The Filipino Yeb Sano, who has been on a hunger strike for the last two weeks in solidarity with his countrymen who were hit by the “super typhoon” Haiyan, gathers his remaining strength to encourage the countries to reach a compromise. A few photographers perch on tables to immortalize this bizarre, almost absurd scene.

A billiard table with 195 cushions

The discussion concerns the commitment time frame for the future agreement – and the negotiating text, which is covered in wording options in brackets, says a great deal about the extent of the disagreements. For behind the words, the stakes are high : who is committing and how ? Should national commitments be prepared ahead of COP21, or only once clear rules have been fixed there ? Should developing countries make the same type of commitments as developed countries ? The European Union is campaigning for commitments to be announced early, so that they can be examined in light of the demands of science, and potentially reassessed. But many would prefer for the commitments to be made in Paris, or even much later.

A compromise is reached during the night, rejected in plenary in the morning, reworked, and finally adopted in the early afternoon – having run into “extra time”. Most of the parallel negotiations also reach a successful conclusion. The time frame aspect (first quarter of 2015) is maintained, but the commitments become “contributions”, a hybrid term which continues to baffle lawyers today. It is not perfect, but it is better than nothing – compromise is inevitable when playing on a billiard table with 195 cushions. The Polish Presidency made the right decision : let the tension build between opposing parties until the countries face the prospect of a complete failure, then reap the compromises reached at the eleventh hour. We can breathe now.

Building confidence

The world of climate negotiations is certainly peculiar. A travelling caravan of negotiators, media, NGOs, researchers, and so on, which settles in a different part of the world each year. Some would even say a “circus”, which is understandable perhaps, but unfair, given the value of this forum for cooperation. The international community has rarely had to work together to face a challenge of such huge dimensions. It is no easy task to deal with this “unidentified political object” – shifting in time and space, of gigantic proportions, with numerous causes and effects – via the classic interplay between nation-states within the United Nations system. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the UN framework is the worst way to deal with climate issues…except for all the others.

For France, hosting COP21 will be a considerable diplomatic challenge – and the subject of future posts on this blog. We must build confidence between States and develop positive initiatives to combat climate change, in order to reach an ambitious, legally binding agreement that is accepted by all countries. In developed and developing countries, national parliaments, local and regional governments, and companies, the foundations have been laid for powerful climate action. In the United Nations arena, it is simply a question of converting the try. And for that, there’s nothing better than a good scrum !

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