Climate Compass Blog

Takeaways from the Paris climate talks

United Nations area at COP 21 in Paris. (Photo Courtesy of UNFCCC via Flickr).

The Paris climate summit is a tale of lessons learned – lessons both in how to manage an unruly negotiating process that can easily veer out of control, and in how to craft a multilateral approach that gets everyone to do more.

The tale ended thankfully tonight with an agreement that could prove the most significant turning point ever in two decades of climate diplomacy.

The Paris agreement is a pragmatic deal that delivers what’s needed – tools to hold countries accountable and build ambition over time. By giving countries greater confidence that all are doing their fair share, it will make it easier for each to do more.

I’ve engaged closely with the U.N. climate talks since their launch in 1992, and here are some of my takeaways on the ingredients for Paris’ success:

Expectations are a powerful force

Even before the summit started or a single word was agreed, more than 180 countries had offered concrete plans for how they intend to address climate change. This was not because they were obliged to, but simply because there was an expectation set two years ago in Warsaw that they would.

This unprecedented, and largely unanticipated, show of political will created powerful momentum heading into Paris.

The agreement that emerged sets some binding commitments (see below), but much of its force will hinge on the further expectations that it sets: that, going forward, countries will put forward their best efforts, and will strengthen them over time. It creates a succession of political moments, like the one we just experienced, when all can judge whether those expectations are met.

Paris climate talks: This could be the start of something big

As negotiators in Paris put the finishing touches on a new global climate accord, it’s worth reflecting on how much the summit has already accomplished.

One event or agreement by itself can’t completely reverse the climate problem. But like other important moments in history, such as the drive to land on the moon in 1969, Paris can inspire innovations across society.The U.S. space program would not have been possible without technologies that still benefit us today like scratch-resistant lenses, computer microchips, smoke detectors and solar panels. Nearly half a century later, many businesses, cities, states and nations are taking new, bold steps to reduce emissions and move toward a clean energy economy.

Whether it’s paving the way for rapid, wide-scale development of renewables, investing in energy efficiency technology and lower carbon electricity, or building resilience to climate impacts, a huge wave of innovation has already been unleashed.

Consider just some of the announcements made before and during the Paris talks:

  • Leaders of 20 countries announced they’ll seek to double investment in clean energy research and development over five years. Backing up this effort, called Mission Innovation, are more than two dozen investors led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates who have pledged to fund early-stage clean energy technology coming out of Mission Innovation.
  • India and France announced an international solar alliance to dramatically increase the reach of solar energy to more than 100 countries in the tropics.

Paris 'landing zones' become clearer

Two days into the final week of climate talks here in Paris, the French hosts have artfully managed to avert any of the usual procedural showdowns, and the contours of a deal are finally beginning to emerge.

With the formal handoff of a draft text to the French presidency over the weekend, the most immediate challenge was structuring a process for this week’s Ministerial-level talks that is “transparent” and “inclusive” but also allows for the private give-and-take among key players that’s necessary to get to a deal.

Elliot Diringer explains possible areas of agreement in Paris

The process devised by the French has distributed the issues across a number of working groups that are “open-ended” (open to all parties, and thus inclusive), which report daily to a Comité de Paris, whose proceedings are open to all, including observers (and thus transparent).

Simultaneously, the Ministers appointed to facilitate the working groups are engaging in furious rounds of private bilateral discussions to triangulate among parties’ positions and move them toward consensus.

Although a handful of parties are pushing to move into a full-group, line-by-line negotiation (which would more likely slow than accelerate the process), this diplomatic balancing appears so far to have earned the trust of most parties and avoided the kind of procedural blowups that have stymied previous COPs.

And, judging from the initial reports from the working group facilitators on Monday night, progress is being made.

Between those reports, and conversations in the hallways, it appears that the “landing zones” we’ve seen emerging in recent months are now becoming clearer to the Ministers too.  

On the whole, Paris will produce a hybrid accord coupling countries’ "nationally determined” contributions (NDCs) with a set of rules and norms promoting accountability and ambition. All but 10 parties have submitted NDCs, demonstrating how the bottom-up flexibility of “nationally determined” achieves broad participation. Now we need the top-down pieces to hold countries accountable and push them to do more.

It’s never safe to predict a COP outcome, but here’s how we see key issues shaping up:

Paris talks: From the visionary to the nitty-gritty

The leaders have jetted off, and the focus here at COP 21 has shifted from the visionary to the nitty-gritty. Now begins the tough grind of narrowing differences, issue by issue, and finding words everyone can agree on.

The record number of heads of state who converged on Paris injected a true sense of gravity -- both by their mere presence and their words, whether describing the futures they fear, the alternatives they envision, or the urgency they feel.

They also spoke, at least in broad terms, to the stubborn issues their negotiators must now overcome, such as help for poor countries facing climate losses, and how countries will be held accountable for their promises.

On the first full day of formal negotiations, any momentum the leaders provided had yet to translate into breakthroughs.  Delegates reported constructive closed-door conversations on some issues, but there were few visible signs of progress on the text of an agreement.

At this stage, the negotiations are still taking place within the Ad Hoc Group on the Durban Platform (ADP), which was launched four years ago to produce a draft agreement.  An ADP contact group is taking up some issues in the open, but most of the work is taking place in smaller, closed “spinoff groups” and in bilateral discussions.

According to the conference schedule, the ADP is supposed to wrap up its work by Saturday.  It will then hand off a text, whatever shape it’s in, to the Conference of the Parties, and to the French presidency, which will orchestrate the final week.

The French face a real challenge under the best of circumstances: crafting a diplomatic process that allows the private give-and-take among a core of key players needed to strike a deal, while at the same time being transparent enough to maintain the confidence of all 196 parties.

That job will be immensely harder if parties don’t start showing flexibility and make real progress over the next four days.  Certainly many tough issues remain, but there’s enough convergence on the broad contours of a deal that putting it on paper shouldn’t be impossible.

If it comes to it, the French can no doubt count on help from high places.  The leaders may be gone, but they’ll be watching.  And they’re just a phone call away.

Businesses are taking climate action

Global climate talks underway in Paris have been built on a foundation of more than just national government commitments. “Sub-national actors,” such as cities, states, and companies, have been making their own climate commitments ahead of Paris, and that trend continues this week.

Just today, in a full-page Wall Street Journal ad coordinated in part by C2ES, more than 100 companies announced their support for a fair and strong global climate agreement and pledged to ensure a transition to a low-carbon, energy-efficient U.S. economy. These companies join a growing chorus of corporate voices for climate action. For example:

  • More than 150 companies, from Alcoa to Xerox, have signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge and committed to reducing their environmental impact through steps such as cutting emissions in half, reducing water usage, and running on 100 percent renewable energy.
  • Bill Gates and other leading business entrepreneurs launched a multibillion-dollar public-private partnership to fund research and development of innovative clean energy technologies.
  • Last week, 78 global CEOs signed an open letter calling committing to action and calling on governments to implement carbon pricing.
  • This fall, 14 energy, tech and manufacturing companies with more than $1 trillion in revenues signed a statement organized by C2ES supporting a balanced and durable international agreement.

Why do more and more businesses care about climate change?