The following post was prepared by our graduate student, Émilie Godbout-Beaulieu, M.Env., J.D. , an LLM candidate at the Schulich School of Law here at Dalhousie. Émilie’s research focus is on the integration of climate change into environmental assessment processes.
Earlier this month, a page of history was written right before our eyes in Paris and I feel lucky to have been there to witness it. After many years of gruelling negotiations, 195 countries adopted an agreement on climate change. What seemed like an impossible task only a few months ago is now realty. Although far from perfect (see Meinhard Doelle’s blog post below for a more in-depth analysis of the adopted text), it is probably safe to say that given all the circumstances, all the parties involved and all their positions and their “red lines” (I will get back to red-lines in a little bit), this text represents one the best possible agreement that could have emerge from this event. As the French President, François Hollande, stated: “the agreement will not be perfect for anyone, but it will be a success for all” and it is that success that makes it so great. During one of my first “Comité de Paris” meeting at the COP21, Laurent Fabius really illustrated well what that success meant with 195 countries involved and the many compromises needed to get there: “a compromise is surrendering to the ideal held by each individual in order to attain what is desirable by all”. That way of thinking stuck with me during the whole negotiations process.
I arrived at the COP21 at the beginning of the second week of the conference. In order to catch up on lost time, I tried to attend as many negotiations events as I could. Unfortunately, there was not very much to see, as most of them were already happening behind closed door by that time. Indeed, during the first week of the conference, Laurent Fabius had created the “Comité de Paris” which was in charge of producing a proposition text for its adoption by the COP21 at the end of the conference. In doing so, Laurent Fabius also created six subgroups to the “Comité de Paris” which were in charge of resolving important issues that seemed to be blocking negotiations (acceleration of pre-2020 action, ambition, cooperative approaches and mechanisms, differentiation, forests, support and means of implementation). During the last three days (the final sprint of the negotiations), “indaba” meetings were also had in order to push to the finish line. Indaba meetings were adopted from southern Africa and adapted to the COP21 meeting. In Paris, each country stated their “red lines” (lines they are not willing to cross) instead of repeating what was already said. After stating their red lines, parties were then asked to find a solution in order to find a compromise on the issues raised, thus allowing for a better flow of the negotiations. This method allowed for a more efficient process and seemed to have been an important piece of the puzzle in getting the final agreement adopted.
While all this was happening behind closed doors, I attended as many side events and other presentations as I could. I have been lucky to listen to prominent researchers on climate change (such as economist Sir Nicholas Stern and human rights activist Mary Robinson). I attended panels and presentations given by well-known politicians (for example, Al Gore and the Governor of California, Jerry Brown). Seeing and listening to these experts really resonated with me and with the work that I am doing. Of course, climate change is an interdisciplinary matter, and as such, the perspective or approach chose by some of the experts was not always the one I would have hoped to see. For example, there were not many events related to climate change law and whenever there were such events, many were falling short of my expectations. Maybe it is because climate change law is still evolving, but still I expected to learn a bit more on legal perspectives, especially at such an internationally renowned event. I would have hoped to see more presentations of best practices on how legislations and courts are currently integrating climate change. However, attending different presentation also gave me different perspective on my own researches, which are always welcomed as a researcher.
The topic of the hour seemed to be linked to the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the targets set out by each country to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. I attended a few talks related to the adequacy of INDCs in the battle against climate change. The presentations and panels were all unanimous: current INDCs are not going to get us under the 2°C target, let alone close to the 1.5°C goal set out in the Paris agreement. Instead, many confirmed that they would be closer to getting us at around the 3°C mark (compared to the 4-5°C temperature rise rhythm we are currently following). With such INDCs deemed insufficient, it is clear that they are only a baseline for what really needs to be done in order to get us to the target set out by scientists to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and in order to reach the target set out in the Paris agreement.
As a long time follower of COP meetings, I was pleased to get access to at least one of the official “Comité de Paris” meeting (the one held on Thursday evening). While it was very short meeting, I was still pleased to have been in the same room with heads of delegations and negotiators and witness it all. Although largely procedural, most of these meetings held throughout the week went relatively well (at least, from what I could tell) even with some meetings lasting until midnight. I opted to stay for all of it– until the last bus was about the leave to get me back to my room in Paris. I felt that the voice of every country was heard (or had a chance to be heard) and that Laurent Fabius was well respected and appreciated by his piers (a representative from Timor half-jokingly proposed to nominate Laurent Fabius for a Nobel Peace Prize next year if an agreement was ever adopted at this year’s conference – I guess we will see if he was serious next year). Many praised the leadership of Laurent Fabius and I think that he does deserve praise, as do all of the UNFCCC team. Without them, the Paris agreement could have been another Copenhagen fiasco. However, I also think that the political and social timing was also right in order to bring this agreement to life. Previous to the agreement and even without unanimous international consensus, more and more governments (and many sub-national and local government too) were taking matters into their own hands and acting on climate change (for example, the European Union, California and Québec). Closer to us, in Canada, we just had a change of federal government, resulting in a new government that promised better things for the environment, raising hope for us in Canada. Furthermore, social movements for climate change have demanded for many years an international political engagement such as the one agreed in Paris and with science gaining certainty on climate change issues everyday (and with climate change impacts already felt throughout the world), it was time for an agreement. All these factors among others played a part in the success at Paris.
When we walked into Le Bourget site on Saturday, December 12th, you could sense a feeling of hope, of change. Then, the final text was released at around 1:30pm, which, honestly, contained provisions that were better than what I had first expected (especially given the latest international agreements on climate change). The level of excitement and hopefulness rose all around Le Bourget. After the release, most seemed optimistic about the proposed text, however, everyone was also very careful in their expectations – we still had hours to go before the scheduled adoption and even then, nobody could predict what would happen during that meeting. When the meeting for the adoption got postponed twice (one official delay of two hours and one unofficial delay of over 90 minutes) nerves were palpable, rumours were flying high (social media played a big part in spreading those, accurate or not), but smiles could still be seen. Was this the moment we were all waiting for? Could we really be at the finish line? Will the adoption process go as smoothly as possible or will anyone oppose? When the last meeting (finally) started, technical errors were noted in the text (such as translation issues) and we then quickly moved on to the COP21 meeting. It was time for the real test: would this proposed text be unanimously adopted? Laurent Fabius first went through all the procedural elements of the COP21 meeting and acknowledge the fact that he saw no objection to the adoption of the agreement… then, within the next second, he brought his gavel down and pronounced that the “Accord de Paris” was officially adopted. In the blink of an eye, history was made. In the blink of an eye, everyone was standing up, cheering, hugging and crying. In the blink of an eye, everyone had hope again: hope in our humanity, hope in the good in the world, and hope that our children would have a future. Of course, now comes the tough realty of putting that agreement into action and meeting the hopes shared by all on Saturday night. This will be the real test and only time will tell if this agreement was worth all this hype or not. One thing is certain, I will never forget this experience.
Émilie Godbout-Beaulieu, M.Env., J.D.
Étudiante LLM Candidate,
Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University