Climate Talks Produce New Draft Accord and More Hope

US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) speaks at an event during the COP21 climate change talks. Paris, France, December 8, 2015. (Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto/Corbis)

With barely two days left to reach an international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming, a new draft was released Wednesday in Paris. But disputes remain over how much nations will be prepared to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which nations emit the most carbon dioxide, and how much richer nations are willing to pay to get the job done in the developing world.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is directing the conference known as COP21, warned that there was still a lot of work to do. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he told delegates from nearly 200 countries and other entities taking part in the talks. United Nations negotiations are well-known for encountering stumbling blocks late in the day that can push meetings into overtime or, worse, prevent them from taking the final steps to agreement.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry struck a more positive note, saying “the fact is we can accomplish so much more in the next few days, in the next hours, here at this conference.” However, he went on to add: “Now, I know that in the meetings we’ve all been having the decisions are tough, and the debates are complex sometimes. If they weren’t, this problem would have been solved a long time ago. But, ladies and gentlemen, the situation demands–and this moment demands–that we do not leave Paris without an ambitious, inclusive, and durable global climate agreement. And after decades of work, half-measures, and flawed attempts at galvanizing global action, we know, all of us, exactly what an effective agreement must include.”

The new draft has been reduced from 43 to 29 pages with the deletion of disputed language, removing about three-quarters of its contested points, according to news reports. While the “cleaner” draft clarifies many points of agreement, there are still concerns among governments and non-government activists on the margins of the talks about how any accord among scores of countries with their own priorities and red lines can be implemented and monitored. Developing nations were reported to be still holding out for more concrete promises on who will pay for the switch from carbon-emitting coal through direct financing or the transfer of energy technologies. Coal is the most important producer of energy in many countries.

The goals hovering over the talks are relatively clear, though important details may still be in dispute after national delegations have had time to read the new draft carefully. Essentially, the aim of the agreement would be to hold the increase in the global average temperature between 1.5 and 2°C above pre-industrial levels, by ensuring deep reductions in global emissions of greenhouse gases.

The proposed accord, drawn up under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, also looks toward development policies and practices to foster climate-resilient economies without jeopardizing food production and distribution.

The troublesome wording that will remain in any accord allows governments to decide on their own responsibilities and capabilities “in the light of different national circumstances.” As in the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, this pledge, while welcome as a means of creating “bottom-up” decisions on climate policy, allows for a very wide range of actions among nations, not all of which are ready to make substantial emissions cuts.

When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff addressed the conference on its opening day, she spoke to both developing and industrial countries, saying that a final agreement “should not be the sum of well-intentioned plans, they should state the paths we should take. The implementation of the new agreements, financing and transfer of technology should assure that all countries have the necessary means to reach our common objective.”

Brazil has some ambitious plans, Rousseff said, including reducing greenhouse gases by 43% by 2030 and reaching zero deforestation by the same target date. “During the last decade, deforestation rates in the Amazon region declined by nearly 80%,” she said.

Nigeria, which has established a Department of Climate Change in its environment ministry, has also submitted an ambitious national agenda that includes not only the reduction of carbon emissions, but also plans to spur economic and spending on social programs, so that its citizens would be better prepared to withstand climate shocks. Now Africa’s largest economy, it has fostered active national debate on climate challenges involving many interested parties.

In Asia, the messages have been more cautious and less positive. It is a region heavily dependent on coal for energy production; the key to greater industrialization. Governments there have been less optimistic about their ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions without economic damage.

A few days before the opening of COP21, President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines, which has already been buffeted by unusually severe storms, said in an interview with the BBC that his country intends to build more coal-fired power stations to meet rising demands for energy. The plans have been criticized by Filipino environmental groups, but the president said that alternatives to coal were not feasible in the near term.  The country generates almost half of its electricity from coal and that percentage is predicted to rise sharply with new coal-powered plants.

Aquino dismissed a major role for both alternative and renewable energy sources, saying that the country lacked the capacity to import large amounts of natural gas, and could not rely on enough steady sunlight for much solar power.

In India, an article in The Hindu newspaper (which is moderate and secular despite its name) quoted insiders saying that the government was not happy with discussions in Paris introducing a review mechanism to monitor compliance. This is favored by French President François Hollande and other leaders in donor nations that will be asked to pay for assistance to governments needing technological assistance and technology transfers to meet their own goals.

“India felt that a transparency and accountability regime should not treat rich and poor nations alike,” G. Ananthakrishnan wrote in the paper, indicating that developing countries should be given waivers. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed as much to President Barack Obama during their meeting in Paris. For example, India does not have the capacity to measure automotive emissions based on vehicle use accurately, while the US does that every year,” Ananthakrishnan wrote.

In Delhi, now the most polluted city in the world, many Indians depend on air quality measurements made by the American embassy. A similar situation exists in Beijing. In both cities, in the days before the opening of the Paris talks, the air was declared hazardous to breathe.

Barbara Crossette is a fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY, and United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also the consulting editor for PassBlue, where an earlier version of this article appeared.