The bumpy road to a Paris climate change agreement

Just over a month before the start of the UN conference on climate change in Paris on November 30th – formally called the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (or COP21) – the preparatory process for a new post-2020 global agreement narrowly avoided what some would refer to as a “close call”.

The text that has been forwarded to COP21 from this last negotiating session, which took place in Bonn, October 19-23, is longer and more complex than the previous text provided by the co-Chairs of the ADP (Ad Hoc Working Group of the Durban Platform, the UNFCCC body that negotiates the Paris Agreement) to delegates for discussion at this October negotiating session.

The new text has many options (259) and brackets (1,510 pairs) and at first glance would strike non-negotiators as unreadable and unyielding. Needless to say, such a reaction is not what is hoped for from the more than 80 heads of state and other leaders who will meet in Paris on day 1 of COP21.

But there is nothing in this text that cannot be solved. It is the result of a complicated process in Bonn, but one that has led all countries to feel ownership of its contents. The text provides, in most cases, recognisable options that can be used as the basis for further negotiation, or at least ones that negotiators feel represent their positions.

Indeed, these are important qualities to have emerged intact after this lengthy and intricate process of negotiating a major environmental treaty with significant trade and development components. This is especially true in light of the suspicions and recriminations felt on the part of developing countries (over broken promises dating back to the 1992 Rio Conference on Trade and Development). Based on this text, there is a way forward, if the parties can summon up sufficient political will.

The fact that the leaders will meet at the start of the session in Paris is in itself a novelty, and to some degree a risky strategy, as they normally come together at the end of the conference to break political deadlocks and partake in the hoped-for celebrations. This time round, their role is to provide the political impulse to take this agreement, after 10 years of negotiations, over the finish line.

Overall, the final text could end by offering a broad range of outcomes. The options that are currently on the table could result in a stronger Agreement with a significant role for the UNFCCC. Alternatively, another set of options could lead to a seriously watered-down agreement. What we will not end up with is anything closely resembling the current Kyoto Protocol and its Cartesian provisions linking caps, timetables and market mechanisms – a giant cap-and-trade scheme.

This new agreement is based on the belief (and the hope) that it will create trust and transparency and will lead to a race to the top. While the Kyoto Protocol was seen as a final document, with increased stringency in caps, the Paris Agreement must be seen as the first step in a bottom-up world, with each Party prepared to act individually, in the hope that the sum, in time, will be bigger than the parts.


*Andrei Marcu is Senior Advisor and Head of the CEPS Carbon Market Forum and Deputy Director of the Energy Climate House. For a more in-depth treatment of the forthcoming Paris climate conference, see his CEPS Commentary, “A Close Call in Paris”, 2 November 2015.