How Paris may succeed where Copenhagen failed

By Jean Chemnick | 12/11/2015 01:21 PM EST

LE BOURGET, France — The climate talks preparing to conclude in a suburb of Paris will probably produce a deal. There are still contentious issues to be addressed, but the delegates and environmental groups roaming the halls of the cavernous meeting complex tend to be pretty hopeful that a deal will be in place sometime in the next 24 hours.

LE BOURGET, France — The final Friday night of the United Nations’ climate talks in Copenhagen six years ago saw the process in disarray.

No one knew where the text of an agreement was or if there was even a text. Delegations were angry because they felt the Danish presidency was limiting their access to information and mismanaging the process. Environmental groups that had shipped in activists for the high-stakes summit that aimed to produce the first truly global deal on emissions saw their badges stripped by conference organizers who were not prepared for the influx of people. The weather was bad, the food was bad, the mood was bad, and the Internet was touch and go.

Fast forward six years, and none of those issues is a problem.


The climate talks preparing to conclude in a suburb of Paris will probably produce a deal. There are still contentious issues to be addressed, but the delegates and environmental groups roaming the halls of the cavernous meeting complex tend to be pretty hopeful that a deal will be in place sometime in the next 24 hours.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is spending the week at the talks in hopes of helping to broker a deal, told reporters today that he expected a good outcome.

"I’m hopeful," he said. "I think there is a way to go forward, that there’s a reasonableness. And over the course of the next hours, this should take shape, and it’s possible that it could come to a conclusion sometime tomorrow."

So what happened to make this year a likely success after Copenhagen was a dismal failure?


To a large extent, it comes down to preparation and managed expectations, participants and observers say.

"I think there’s a much greater appreciation for what a U.N. agreement can do and not do, so there is much closer or more precise focus on what multilateral agreements can do," said Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute. "You didn’t have a 300-page text coming into Paris, you had a 50-page text coming into Paris."

The French presidency of these talks began meeting bilaterally with parties even before the climate talks in Lima, Peru, last year, which both had the effect of narrowing down and defining areas of disagreement and of making parties feel they had been consulted.

In Copenhagen, meanwhile, participants say the presidency seemed to be at a loss.

"The problem with Copenhagen is that they were just making the process up as they went along," said Erich Pica, U.S. president of Friends of the Earth. "You were hearing cries of ‘transparency and process’" throughout the negotiations.

When the Copenhagen conference convened, there was a long bracketed text full of language options. The Danish presidency attempted to iron out those differences by holding small group consultations, which made parties that were not in the room feel that they were being excluded. It also had a text that it had been shopping around to different parties to test the waters that was eventually leaked to the press as a "secret text" — fueling complaints that the process was not transparent. This caused some delegations to walk out.

As the talks enter the eleventh hour here, the French conveners spent today holding one-on-one consultations with parties throughout the day on outstanding issues like review, finance and transparency. Each subsequent draft text had fewer brackets in it — meaning that more issues have been resolved and are less likely to be revised.

A draft text released last night made it clear that emissions targets would not be legally binding, removing a stumbling block that would have prevented the United States from joining the deal. Another will be released sometime tomorrow, and there is some hope it might be the final version.

"This has been like the anti-Copenhagen," said Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy, who also attended the Copenhagen talks. "The French did a really good job of learning the lessons of Copenhagen and not repeating them."

Heads of state

One of the key lessons is the role heads of state were asked to play in Paris versus Copenhagen.

While leaders including President Obama attended both Conferences of the Parties, in Copenhagen their visit came to be seen as more of a liability than a benefit. In Copenhagen, they stepped in and effectively began renegotiating the text, sorting through issues that lower-level ministers and negotiators had been grappling with for months.

Deutz remembers that participants kept expecting a text to be released any minute. "Obama came up with the Copenhagen Accord and then left and nobody knew where the document was," he remembers.

The accord, which was a combination of all of the pledges made throughout the two-week conference, was finally agreed to. But the overall product was judged to be a failure.

The experience of Copenhagen left much to be desired, environmentalists say.

"By the last day, we’d all been kicked out of the venue," Deutz said. "When the heads of state came in at a certain point, they shut us down."

Pica remembers that the international group had 400 badges at the start of the conference. When it ended, the organizers had stripped all but four badges, and activists who had travelled thousands of miles to participate were relegated to holding side events in hotels around the Danish capital.

This year, FOE has 60 observers at the talks, Pica said, and they’ve been able to stay the entire time.

Negotiators who participated in those talks also say this year has been smoother sailing.

Farhad Bakhtiar, who advises the minister of Uganda, remembered Copenhagen as a "catastrophe."

The heads of state who visited "were using the platform for their own political agenda," he said, rather than to move the process along. The end product was less of an agreement and more of a collection of random commitments from countries. In contrast, France has run a more transparent process, he said, and an agreement seems likely to be reached.

Edgar Gutiérrez Espeleta, the minister of environment and energy from Costa Rica, said he was hopeful that the agreement reached tonight or tomorrow will help his nation stave off the worst effects of climate change.

"What I learned from their experience in Copenhagen, I feel like here there is optimism," he said. "And in recent days, I’m seeing more willingness to agree. Willingness to negotiate. Willingness to drop a sentence or a word that before someone would just pretty much stick to."

Another reason the talks are likely to succeed, Deutz said, is that "there’s a much higher cost to being a spoiler."

French President Françios Hollande and his team including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made use of the goodwill they had after Paris suffered a terrorist attack last month that left 130 dead, he said. The tragedy added countries’ determination not to get in the way of a deal.

"I do think every world leader who came here wants to assure Hollande and France a victory at the end of two weeks," he added.