Paris climate summit: how to make it a success

Eric Feferberg, AFP | Performers wearing effigies of the leaders of Germany, China, the US, India and France gather for a breakfast organised by Oxfam NGO on the eve of the COP21 conference on climate change in Paris.

The leaders of 147 countries start gathering in Paris on Sunday for a 12-day diplomatic marathon aimed at producing a global agreement that can stave off catastrophic climate change.


The host, French President François Hollande, is determined to make a new global climate deal part of his legacy. He has refused to postpone the event, known as COP21, in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attacks in French history. For months, he has repeated that failure is simply not an option.

In the build-up to the summit, FRANCE 24 and others have widely reported on the human, ecological, and financial costs of failure to clinch a deal. But what exactly are the criteria for success? Here's a look at what is needed to avoid a repeat of the last-minute chaos that beset the previous UN climate summit in Copenhagen, in 2009.

Objective 2°C

It’s the most frequently quoted target of negotiations: keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, without which low-lying lands are likely to be swamped by the oceans and climate patterns will be severely disrupted.

Individual states have been required to submit plans for voluntary cuts to greenhouse gas emissions with a view to meeting the 2°C target. Most countries – accounting for 90% of the world’s emissions – already have, but scientists say their pledges fall short of requirements.

There is still room for progress at the talks, though some big fossil fuel producers such as Russia, Canada and Australia are reluctant to cut further. Getting them to raise their game will be crucial to the summit’s success.

'Commitments made so far are not enough'

Binding targets

It is all well and good pledging voluntary cuts, but what if states don’t keep their word? Earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry cast a pall over summit preparations by declaring that the Paris deal would “definitely not” contain legally-binding obligations for individual states.

Both Hollande and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, rushed to assert that the summit would indeed produce a “binding agreement”. But Amy Dahan, a climate specialist at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), says Kerry was simply “stating a matter of fact”.

She noted that any agreement clinched in Paris would only become legally binding after approval by individual parliaments, a step “that is simply unthinkable in a US Senate controlled by the Republican Party”.

Furthermore, the current lack of an international legal framework governing the environment means individual states have nothing to fear – other than worldwide opprobrium – should they forgo their own commitments.

As a result, it is best not to assess the summit’s success based on delegates’ competing claims that the final text is, or isn’t, legally binding.

Revision clause

Failure to produce a legally binding document is no reason to despair. In order to make up for this inherent flaw, France has been pushing hard for a special clause that would involve all nations revising their targets for slashing pollution every three to five years.

Under such a clause, countries that fail to deliver enough emission cuts could see their targets toughened. While still not legally binding, the arrangement would give the climate deal teeth and put pressure on the laggards.

The good news for Hollande is that China has said it is open to the clause – with one important caveat, says Dahan. According to the French specialist, Beijing has said it will accept a clause that reviews its pollution cuts, but not one that forces it to do more.

Still, says Dahan, China’s goodwill is a step in the right direction, particularly for a country “that seldom accepts violations of its national sovereignty”.

Either way, the inclusion of a revision clause in the final text would give France reason to celebrate a breakthrough in the fight against global warming. If China can be persuaded to forgo its condition, it would be even better.

Green Fund

Rich countries have pledged sweeping emission cuts, but getting them on board is only part of the job. Poorer nations have said they will only agree to a deal if the wealthy stick to the “Green Fund” promise made in Copenhagen six years ago, when they pledged to provide an annual $100 billion by 2020 to help the developing world invest in clean technologies and offset the damage of global warming.

Dahan says negotiations on this vexed point are “well behind”. She questions the OCDE’s recent claim that 60% of the money has already been allotted, noting that this “does not always involve hard cash and amounts in part to recycled development aid”.

Besides, there is still no concrete proposal on how to provide the remaining 40% of funding. Rich countries say they don’t want the money to come solely from the public purse. They want the private sector and the World Bank to help plug the hole, but there is no guarantee private firms will play ball.

If the rich are serious about climate change, they cannot afford to rely on the private sector’s goodwill. Failure to provide adequate assurances to the developing world means countries like India could prove uncooperative when it comes to slashing emissions.

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