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.