[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the fourth in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from COP to COP.” For many, that might be the slogan of the UN climate change regime. Or, to mix literary metaphors, the COPs are reminiscent of Sartre’s No Exit, where hell consisted of being locked in a room talking to the same small group of people for eternity.
Paris is the opportunity to prove the skeptics wrong – to show that the climate change regime can take a real step forward, rather than just creep along from COP to COP. But whether it will succeed in doing so remains an open question.
First, the good news. Paris is definitely one of the best-organized COPs ever – the French have done a fantastic job. And the mood, perhaps not coincidentally, is also good, totally unlike the poisonous atmosphere in Copenhagen, where some countries sought to systematically undermine the Danish Presidency. In contrast, one hears nothing but praise for the French team’s handling of COP21. Instead of angry protesters outside the venue, people are handing out apples, as a taste of biodiversity.
Moreover, the text is gradually being streamlined to a more manageable size. Parisagreement.org, a group based at UC San Diego, have been tracking the number of brackets and options in each successive iteration of the negotiating text. According to their figures, the number of brackets in the December 5 text has shrunk by 45% from the November 10 text, and the number of options by 60%. Of course, their work reminds me a bit of the Monty Python skit in which John Cleese compares the difficulty of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of the number of words they contain: Hamlet has 8262, Othello has 941 words fewer, and so forth. But then he adds, “Ah well, I don’t want you to get the impression it’s just the number of words … I mean, getting them in the right order is just as important.” Something similar could be said of brackets; it’s not just the number, it’s also a matter of whether they reflect real differences or are just negotiating ploys. That said, I do think it’s fair to infer that the shrinking number of brackets and options reflects progress. And I remain optimistic that there will be an agreement this week in Paris.
The question is what will survive the negotiating process and make it into the agreement. Although the text is in better shape than many expected and the number of crunch issues is relatively manageable, states continue to push proposals that have no prospect of being accepted, in an effort to gain negotiating leverage. So progress remains slow.
The political imperative of reaching a deal gives tremendous leverage to potential naysayers. The usual solution, when time is running out, is to cut and cut and cut, until the outcome doesn’t push any country past its comfort zone. Developing countries want strong provisions on finance and differentiation, while developed countries want more modest provisions. Conversely, developed countries want strong provisions on transparency and updating (to promote progressively higher mitigation ambition), while the big developing countries do not. How to bridge these differences? The easiest solution is to trade weak provisions on finance and differentiation for weak provisions on transparency and updating.
Even if this is how the end game plays out – and that is, of course, by no means a foregone conclusion – I don’t think it would be fair to characterize the Paris process as a failure. Paris has served as a catalyst both for national governments and for sub-national and non-governmental initiatives. It has prompted more than 185 countries to put forward INDCs, which would reduce emissions by an estimated 4-8 gigatons below business as usual by 2030, according to a recent report by UNEP. It has led to a groundswell of activities by cities, regions, and companies. And it has spawned initiatives like Mission Innovation, announced last week by President Obama, President Hollande, and leaders from 18 other countries, who pledged to double their clean energy R & D over the next five years, as well as the related private initiative, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, led by Bill Gates. So, in many ways, Paris is already a success. Nevertheless, the international agreement that the Paris process is supposed to produce is also a key ingredient. If the INDCs submitted by countries aren’t bolstered by an agreement with strong provisions on transparency and ambition, then I think Paris will be a lost opportunity to show that the UN process can do more than creep – that there’s a way out of the room within which the negotiators have been locked.