The following post was prepared by our graduate student, Don McCrimmon, who is currently serving as an intern at the UN Climate Change secretariat and is a PhD candidate at the Schulich School of Law here at Dalhousie. His research is focused on human rights and the environment:
I am writing this on the train away from Paris and COP 21, the Paris conference where the new international climate change agreement was adopted last night. Prior to COP 21, I was interning at the United Nations climate change secretariat and worked hard to prepare the draft text building up to the conference. However, while at COP 21, I was not part of the secretariat team and was instead accredited as an observer with the Marine & Environmental Law Institute. My prior experience with the secretariat combined with reduced responsibilities of an observer allowed me to have a unique experience at the conference. I knew the text well and could observe many of the negotiations in the first week of the COP without needing to be frantically taking notes and working the long hours of the secretariat. During the second week of the COP, negotiations were off-limits to observers so I attended some of the numerous side-events which occur at the convention and enjoyed a couple of days in Paris.
Throughout the COP, the questions on everyone’s lips were with regard to the new climate change agreement: the strengths and weaknesses of every successive draft, the potential responses from parties; and the ultimate question: would it be adopted at the end of the convention? While we now know that it was adopted, I can tell you there was tension up until the final gavel. In the minutes leading up to the final plenary, which was inexplicably delayed almost two hours, nobody was sure what would happen. However, before the final gavel and the cheers and tears that came with the adoption of the Agreement, the COP had begun two weeks earlier with the final session of the ADP.
For those unfamiliar, the formal negotiation of the Paris Agreement began at COP 17 in Durban, South Africa with the establishing of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP). The main purpose of the ADP was to produce a new international climate change agreement by the end of 2015. The goal of the ADP was to finish the negotiation of technical details of a new agreement by the end of the first week of the COP, at which point they would hand a draft Paris Agreement to the “COP Presidency”. The Presidency, led by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, would then guide negotiations though the last week to resolve any outstanding disagreements.
It was always known that the draft document presented to the Presidency by the ADP would not be final text; there were some “political” aspects of the text which the ADP negotiators could not resolve, such as how to differentiate the responsibilities of developed and developing countries and the provision of support for developing countries. These issues, along with a handful of others would have to be resolved by high-ranking national ministers who would attend the second week of the COP to negotiate these details. However, for various reasons, the text handed from the ADP to the COP presidency retained hundreds of small linguistic options, dozens of important unresolved technical issues, as well as these major political issues. The biggest concern within the Convention hall was if and how the Presidency could resolve all of these issues in what would be a short second week of the COP. Many believed that the most optimistic outcome would be a basic skeletal Agreement which made vague promises that the Parties would continue to work together to reduce emissions and support adaptation and those affected by climate change. Amazingly, the Paris Agreement is by no way a skeletal agreement and while it is not perfect and does not guarantee that we will effectively respond to challenge of climate change, it is an impressive and ambitious Agreement which, if widely adopted and adhered to, will reshape the world and can facilitate a global response to climate change.
Unfortunately, almost all of the work of the French Presidency was done behind closed doors, so I won’t learn the details of what happened until I tease information from my colleagues at the Secretariat (probably in the new year once they’ve had a well-deserved break). What is clear is that Minister Fabius can work without sleep and the diplomacy of he and his team (with the support of the secretariat) was pivotal in bringing about the Paris Agreement. To be clear, the Presidency does not negotiate the agreement or independently produce the text. If I use a sporting analogy, the Parties are the players on the team, they actually participate in the game and ultimately win or lose together. The Presidency is the coaching staff, making sure that they work together and account for each other’s positions. Finally the secretariat is the support staff, making and bringing the equipment, uniforms, extra balls, publicity, privacy, and encouragement. The Parties, the Presidency and the secretariat all play very important roles in the process which again, if likened to a particular sport would be American Football, with complex coaching strategies, logistics, and player roles – it can also be unbearably slow at times and also exciting when everything comes together.
During the second week of the COP, there were brief moments when the Parties publically reflected on the closed process. At these times, they nearly universally praised the efforts and process of the Presidency, but gave few indications as to how the negotiations were actually progressing. As someone familiar with the text and negotiation process I could hear in the reports of the negotiation that some progress was being made, but there was clearly slow, or even no, development on certain aspects of the text. Speaking to people in the halls it was clear that everyone was cautiously optimistic, but nobody was sure that we would have an Agreement the end of the week.
Yesterday morning a final text was released after more iterations than I would like to count. It was ambitious, differentiated, would require that Parties to become more ambitious over time and provided support for developing countries to participate in mitigation and adapt to climate change. Certainly it was not a perfect deal for any one Party, but it was thought by many to be a very good deal overall. The questions was whether or not the Parties would actually adopt it. Initially the final plenary (meeting) of the parties was scheduled for 3:45pm, it was then delayed until 5:30, presumably to allow more time for it to be translated into various languages. The language copies were then released, but then the meeting was informally delayed until 7pm – nobody seemed to know why. The media had already concluded that the agreement was a done deal, but the mood in room remained tense, with “cautious optimism” being the phrase tossed around. Then, suddenly the meeting began and the Agreement was adopted. There were no objections and before I realized what had happened the audience was on its feet cheering. The parties then proceeded to speak in turn about how the Agreement was great, but imperfect.
No international agreement is perfect, but this is a huge step in the right direction. If Parties adopt the agreement and adhere to its text, climate change could become a “non issue”. I think that’s a pretty exciting prospect.
December 13, 2015