‘Too many people, too many ideas, too little progress,” was the verdict of one veteran climate negotiator on the first week of the conference convened to save the planet. Unlike the Copenhagen climate conference six years ago, when presidents and prime ministers were present at the conference’s disastrous denouement, bets were hedged this year in Paris. Presidents and prime ministers addressed the start of the Conference of the Parties (COP) last week. “I can’t separate the fight with terrorism from the fight against global warming,” the leader of the free world and COP host said in the COP’s opening address. “These are two big global challenges we have to face up to,” François Hollande added.
“I believe we can act boldly and decisively in the face of a common threat,” President Obama declared. “I just want to say to this plenary session that we are running short on time.” Oops, that wasn’t President Obama in Paris in December 2015 but President Obama in Copenhagen in December 2009. It might have done equally well for Paris. When it’s always one minute to midnight to save the planet, speakers can recycle words and sentiments from one COP to the next without anyone noticing or caring. If it feels as if the Obama presidency is taking forever to end, the climate talks have been dragging on for more than two decades since the United Nations climate-change convention was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 — and there’s no end in sight.
The Paris negotiating text is bloated with alternative articles and bracketed passages. Having been shortened from around 50 pages to 20 after preliminary rounds of negotiations in Bonn, Germany, in the early autumn, the draft agreement has now swelled back to its former length. Harlan Watson — for whom this is the 17th COP he has attended, either as a negotiator (under George W. Bush) or as an observer — says he has never seen a text being closed down so early as at Paris, when it was handed to the French presidency on Saturday evening to be knocked into shape. No one has worked the key parties harder than the French have, Watson says. French foreign minister (and former prime minister) Laurent Fabius is managing the process more professionally than anyone since attendees signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. There have been no leaks like that in 2009 of the “Danish text,” a passage that would have given more power to rich nations and that infuriated developing nations and led to uproar; the leak showed up the Danes as rookies.
#share#Beyond the professionalism of the French, other factors this year contribute to the likelihood of an agreement, but these are a reflection of how far past failures have forced Western governments to retreat, exposing the planet-saving rhetoric for what it is: empty. Agreement is easier because ambition is lower. Contentious issues that bedeviled past COPs have fallen away because reality has destroyed them. Developed and developing nations no longer exhaust negotiating rounds arguing whether an agreement should fall under the 1992 climate-change convention or the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, because the latter is a zombie protocol that has only the EU and a handful of others still in it. That is a sign of failure, not success.
The crunch issue at Kyoto had been the carbon-reduction goal — the exact figure — for each country. No one is discussing this at Paris. Emissions reductions aren’t negotiated between parties. Now parties submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions; unilateral decision-making has replaced multilateral negotiations. Meanwhile, as China’s submission helpfully explains, developed nations should undertake ambitious economy-wide quantified emissions cuts “in accordance with their historical responsibilities,” but developing nations can submit anything they like by way of “enhanced mitigating actions.” The divide between developed and developing nations, which Copenhagen tried and failed to overcome, is still there, at least in the minds of the Chinese negotiators.
#related#Then there’s the money. Lots of it. In Copenhagen, Hillary Clinton put $100 billion a year on the table. When developing nations say they want a legally binding agreement out of Paris, they mean that they want the West to be legally obligated to deliver $100 billion a year. And it doesn’t end there. In its submission, India states that 363 million of its people live in poverty and it plans to more than triple electricity consumption by 2030. It reckons that it needs at least two and a half trillion dollars of climate finance over the next 15 years, or $167 billion annually. Hillary Clinton’s $100 billion is just the beginning.
In essence, Western leaders and bureaucrats are asking for international cover to impose vastly expensive, damaging, and utterly unworkable energy policies on their own countries, in return for which the West will transfer money and technology to developing countries. Western politicians are desperate for a deal. In return, developing nations can do what they were going to do anyway — such as triple energy consumption. So a deal of some kind will get done. And the circus will carry on until the bubble of the COPs is pricked by voters who punish politicians for taking them on the most costly ride in history.
— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History.