The Paris talks: Looking behind the scenes

Negotiations toward a new global climate agreement resume Monday in Bonn amid growing concern that time is running short – the agreement is due this December in Paris – and that the remaining task is monumental.

Indeed, while the new text negotiators will be working from is a bit more coherent than the last one, it is still a very long way from something countries could sign on to in Paris.  Parties hopefully will make progress this week narrowing options and will task the co-chairs with producing a much more streamlined text for the next meeting in October.

The state of the text, though, may not the best measure of the state of the negotiations.  The tedious slog of the formal sessions in Bonn may be what’s most visible. But countries are spending even more time talking in other, less formal settings, at multiple levels. And the conversations there are considerably more encouraging.

One example is C2ES’s Toward 2015 dialogue, which brought together senior negotiators from China, the United States and 20 other European, Asian, Latin American and African countries for eight in-depth discussions over 15 months.  A final report last month from dialogue co-chairs Valli Moosa and Harald Dovland outlines key elements of a Paris deal.

Strikingly, many of the same elements are reflected in the official summaries from two recent ministerial-level meetings – an informal consultation hosted by France and Peru, and a meeting of the Major Economies Forum hosted by Luxembourg and the United States, where C2ES was invited to present the Toward 2015 report.

All three documents suggest growing convergence on many of the components of the Paris agreement. They foresee a pact that:

  • Allows countries considerable flexibility in defining their own nationally determined contributions to the agreement, but sets rules and norms to ensure transparency and accountability and encourage rising ambition;
  • Requires all parties to report on implementation of their contributions through a common transparency framework, with flexibility and support for countries with limited capacity;
  • Relies largely on the de facto self-differentiation reflected in nationally determined contributions, rather than defined categories of countries, to achieve a balanced distribution of effort;
  • Builds ambition over time through periodic review of collective progress and updating of national contributions, probably every five years;
  • Creates a clear expectation of “no backsliding” or “forward progression” i in the scale, scope or type of parties’ contributions;
  • Puts much stronger emphasis on climate adaptation; and
  • Mobilizes support for developing countries.

Strong differences remain on some issues – including whether countries’ emission goals should be internationally binding. But these signals from informal and ministerial-level dialogues suggest far greater convergence on fundamentals than is evident so far in the formal negotiations – or than ever emerged in the run-up to the calamitous 2009 Copenhagen conference.

Meantime, 56 countries accounting for about two-thirds of global emissions have submitted their intended contributions to the Paris agreement. And other major-emitting countries – including India, Brazil and South Africa – are under strong pressure to do so soon.

It’s easy to understand, given the disappointing history of the U.N. climate talks, the deep cynicism in many quarters that the process can ever produce meaningful results.  But this well-earned cynicism shouldn’t blind us to the genuine opportunity in Paris to establish a more balanced, durable and effective global framework.

What’s achievable in the formal negotiations is always a function of the understandings that can be reached at a more political level. Hopefully, this coming week we’ll begin to see the encouraging signs at that level translate into concrete progress on the text of a Paris agreement.

We’ll be tracking the talks closely and, in the weeks ahead, will be offering additional blog posts taking a closer look at key issues likes differentiation, finance, adaptation, transparency, the role of market mechanisms, and the legal form of the Paris agreement.