A U.N. deadline for countries to pen a new global climate change agreement in Paris is more than two years away, but already French officials are making the rounds to galvanize world support for the deal.
The diplomacy tour quietly began almost as soon as the last U.N. global warming meeting ended in December with the appointment of France's minister for development, Pascal Canfin, as climate ambassador and a series of "listening" meetings around the world.
With a major annual climate negotiating session slated for Poland next month, France's efforts have stepped up in earnest. In public events and interviews with ClimateWire in Washington, D.C., recently, Canfin and Special Envoy to the French President for the Protection of the Planet Nicolas Hulot said they believe a 2015 agreement is possible. But mindful of the chaos that befell the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark -- widely branded a disaster -- both said France's goal will be to avoid the mistakes of the past.
"We are all aware this will be a very difficult challenge. France does not have a magic wand to succeed where others have failed, and I am specifically thinking of the Copenhagen conference," Hulot said. "In the two years leading up, it is better for us to adopt an attitude where we listen and try to understand the positions and arguments of others."
A new global warming treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has long been elusive. But by 2015, governments have now agreed, all greenhouse gas emitters will commit to new targets ratcheting down carbon pollution post-2020. That new deal is expected to hold the United States, Europe and other industrialized longtime emitters to the same legal standards as China, India and other newer big polluters, though the levels of reductions might differ depending on a particular country's wealth or capacity.
Yet while the broad outlines are set, details of a system that rich and poor countries will all deem fair have to be worked out over the next two years. Also to be decided is the structure, which still remains vague as a "protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force," according to a 2011 U.N. decision.
Finding compromise on all of those issues, advocates said, will require France as host to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21, to remain stedfastly evenhanded in a way Denmark was never viewed.
The space between voluntary and binding
"I think the most important thing is that they have a deep understanding of where countries are, what their priorities are, what their bottom lines are, and that times a lot of time. Starting early, way in advance, I don't think anyone has ever done that before, so that's really impressive," one longtime analyst said. "They will have to be the neutral convener, separating themselves out from Europe."
Speaking to the Organization of American States earlier this month, France's representatives put its open-ears approach on full display. Hulot and Canfin showered praise on Mexico for its successful hosting of a 2010 climate conference, pledged to "share a common vision" with Peru -- which will be hosting the conference in 2014 -- and even had warm words for Venezuela, whose diplomats are seen as the bomb-throwers of the negotiations. Then the duo asked Latin American leaders to open a dialogue.
But it also appears that France's diplomats already have in mind the basic framework of the deal they would like to see inked in Paris.
Speaking earlier that same day to the Brookings Institution, Canfin talked down the possibility of a legally binding agreement akin to the Kyoto Protocol. That treaty, to which the United States never became a party, set a global target for emissions reductions and then mandated cuts from each industrialized nation. Repeating that model, even with a greater number of nations, is something the United States opposes, favoring instead a voluntary approach backed by strong reporting and verification.
On the other hand, many note, a repeat of Copenhagen -- where nations essentially recorded their domestic emissions targets with a vague future understanding that there would be a review process -- also fell short. Canfin, who described his negotiating style as both idealistic and pragmatic, called for a middle-of-the-road approach.
"For a number of countries, including the U.S., a legal agreement on binding targets will be very difficult for political reasons. On the other hand, if there is only a bottom-up approach ... it will be very difficult for public opinion," he said.
He outlined a likely compromise, which involves countries by 2014 -- ideally at a climate leaders summit that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is convening -- offering up their voluntary but nationally binding post-2020 targets. Over that final year before COP 21, some combination of negotiations and "peer review" might buck those targets up, to be formalized in Paris the second week of December 2015.
That plan doesn't sit well with advocates for developing countries. Asked if she could accept a 2015 deal that did not legally bind the United States and other major historical emitters to ambitious carbon cuts, Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said, "Of course not. What is that? If it's not legally binding, then what is it?"
It is realistic, answer advocates of such a middle-way approach. Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said a hybrid deal is needed that has "some degree of bindingness, but also degrees of flexibility that invites broad participation."
Most importantly, he said, a new deal should have some kind of mechanism for countries to bolster their emissions targets over time, making whatever comes out of Paris an ever-evolving document. That, he said, would take some pressure off countries to by 2015 marry themselves to politically difficult emissions cuts that will keep the Earth's warming below 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels but still would create a credible path toward getting there.
"The agreement in 2015 will not be the grand solution," Diringer said. "Numbers are important, but they are not the entire measure of success."
Message to Obama: Don't wait until 2015
For now, the French diplomacy team said they are focused on creating a very different atmosphere in the run-up to Paris than what existed before Copenhagen.
Among the shifts will be avoiding grand pronouncements of Paris as the "last chance to save the planet," which was the high bar in Copenhagen, with its ominous countdown clock to a treaty that never arrived. Instead, Canfin and Hulot said they will spend the next two years trying to prove that industrialized and developing countries have a common economic interest in reducing emissions -- an argument they say was missing in 2009.
Something else the French leaders say they don't want to see in their country come 2015: President Obama. Or, for that matter, any of the hundreds of unprepared world leaders whose presence in Denmark made for a bizarre crunch-time negotiating session in the wee hours of the final night, with presidents and prime ministers jousting over words in the final Copenhagen Accord.
"No. We want President Obama in September in New York," Canfin said, referring to Ban's climate summit at the 2014 U.N. General Assembly, when asked directly if he wants Obama to come to COP 21. "We need political commitment, but we don't need this political commitment the last day in a conference room in Paris," he said. "We need to make this negotiation a real negotiation. We do not want to wait for the last minute to put compromises on the table."
As many as 40,000 people could descend upon Paris for the conference, Canfin estimated. He called COP 21 a logistical and political challenge that President François Hollande has taken a personal interest in making successful.
"Climate change is one of the key priorities of our diplomacy. It will be the biggest event ever organized in France," he said. "We have two years and capacity to work with almost everybody. We need to demonstrate that having everybody on board is much more ambitious than having a limited number of countries committed on a binding basis."