Climate talks move toward overtime to deal with a few tough issues

By Lisa Friedman | 12/11/2015 08:41 AM EST

LE BOURGET, France — Climate change talks have gone into the final stretch, and despite early optimism about completing a global accord early, it now seems the negotiations will need a pair of elastic pants.

LE BOURGET, France — Climate change talks have gone into the final stretch, and despite early optimism about completing a global accord early, it now seems the negotiations will need a pair of elastic pants.

For the second night in a row, diplomats jousted over phrases well past midnight, this time over a shortened but still-contentious 27-page draft text. By morning, all was quiet in the normally bustling halls as countries met in small groups so they could consult with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius later in the day to outline where agreements might be found. Another new text is expected out tomorrow, and hope remains that it will kick off final decisions.

"There was obviously a lot of pushback last night to Fabius’ new text," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who stayed until about 2 a.m. local time. "Of the big players, no one was totally happy."


That draft, cut by about half from a previous version, was short but sharp. It held 48 brackets indicating disputed words and 13 options from which ministers could choose. That, however, didn’t include what one negotiator referred to as "invisible brackets" around words and phrases still in dispute no matter what the text said.

With countries unable to agree on some key issues — how much money to deliver after 2020 and from whom, a strong long-term goal and aim to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and a way to review and ratchet up countries’ emissions targets every five years — the French did it for them.

In each case, observers said, they chose a "high ambition" option and in doing so raised objections from all quarters.

Secretary of State John Kerry took the seat for the United States in a closed session and, according to those in the room, gave a lengthy speech. He declared the draft text "a monument to differentiation," maintaining that while it avoids dividing responsibilities of developed and developing countries based on 1992 income levels, it still treats countries of different levels of wealth and capacity differently.

Other countries — namely, China and India — didn’t see it that way. They and others argued for strict divisions to be maintained.

"They made a strategic decision to put a high-ambition text on the table. Now the question is, can they use their leverage and defend it? Or do people insist on what they’ve been claiming are their red lines?" said Steven Herz, an attorney with the Sierra Club.

Andrew Deutz of the Nature Conservancy agreed. "I think we are headed in a positive trajectory," he said. "You can see a pathway to success."

The last and, many hope, final version of the text will be out at 9 a.m. local time tomorrow morning, Fabius said, and many observers here expect an afternoon final gavel.

Here’s where things stand on some key issues:

  • Ratcheting: This is the provision under which countries will agree to have their emissions targets reviewed and increased every five years. This has been something the United States and many environmental groups have insisted upon, while India and others have insisted that doing so must be voluntary for developing nations and come with the commitment of money. The current text includes some key elements the United States hopes to see, including potentially strong language ensuring that all countries move toward economywide emissions cuts. At the same time, it recognizes that "peaking will take longer for developing country parties."
  • Transparency: This is another issue dear to the heart of the U.S. negotiating team. State Department Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern has called it "vital" that developing countries be asked to report their progress toward their emissions targets with as much rigor and frequency as rich countries. Today’s text leaves that still very much up in the air. Deutz said the biggest resistance there comes from India and China, which, like many other developing countries, are wary of intervention from abroad. "It’s a historic issue for China and also some countries with a colonial past. They jealously guard their sovereignty and domestic politics," he said — though he also noted, "developed countries don’t really like other nations poking around in their business, either," but have become comfortable with the U.N. system for reviewing emissions cuts.
  • Temperature target: In a big win for island nations, the new text now calls for holding the global average temperature increase to "well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C." Scientists say it will be tremendously difficult to meet that goal, but the most vulnerable nations said the deal must at minimum recognize it as an aspiration. "With this, I would be able to go home and tell my people that our chance for survival is not lost," Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum said.
  • Legally binding: In a surprising move, the final text makes no mention of either internationally binding emissions pledges or a demand to implement policies to see those targets through. That’s another win for the United States, which is trying to avoid the need for Senate approval. Rather than requiring that countries make good on their pledges, it states only that intended nationally determined contributions "shall be recorded in a public registry maintained by the secretariat." European and American activists described the language as a major concession on the part of the European Union, which had sought binding commitments as a means of guaranteeing that promised reductions would happen.

Meyer said he is staying optimistic, but said countries must decide today if they will all do things that are hard for them, or all decide to take the easy way out.

"You’ve basically got two directions this can go," he said. "The question is which."

Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.