Paris climate change talks yield first draft amid air of optimism

Negotiators paving the way for a global climate change agreement in Paris have cleared a major hurdle, producing a draft accord in record time and raising hopes that a full week of minister-led talks can now clinch a deal despite many sticking points.

No part of the deal has been finalised because in the end it is likely to be a tradeoff between developing countries’ demands – particularly for financing to help cope with the impacts of locked-in climate change – and wealthier nations’ insistence that over time all countries properly account for the progress they have made towards emission reduction goals.

And it remains littered with brackets – indicating areas of disagreement. But the document handed to the French on Saturday has refined 50 pages down to just over 20 and, unusually, was agreed on schedule, leaving a full week for ministers to reach agreement.

China’s chief climate negotiator, Su Wei, said: “It has laid a solid foundation for next week … like when we cook a meal you need to have all the seasonings and ingredients and recipes, but next week is the actual cooking.”

Senior negotiators and long-time observers believe there will be a way through the sticking points. “There is good news. This is only a basis for a negotiation … there are several disagreements that we need to talk to each other, to try to solve … but political will is there from all parties,” he said.

Non-government observers were also cautiously optimistic. Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace said progress was far better than at a similar point in the 2009 Copenhagen talks. “At this point in Copenhagen [in 2009] we were dealing with a 300-page text and a pervasive sense of despair. In Paris we’re down to a slim 21 pages and the atmosphere remains constructive. But that doesn’t guarantee a decent deal. Right now the oil-producing nations and the fossil fuel industry will be plotting how to crash these talks when ministers arrive next week.”

Laurence Tubiana, the French envoy for the talks, said: “We could have been better, we could have been worse. The job is not done, we need to apply all intelligence, energy, willingness to compromise and all efforts to come to agreement. Nothing is decided until everything is decided.”

Liz Gallagher, project manager at the non-profit organisation E3G, said the first week of talks had seen “some movement among negotiation blocs, with the idea of north and south … becoming more nuanced”. India had been “better behaved than we expected them to be”, she said, but Saudi Arabia had been blocking the negotiations on several fronts. The Saudis had, for example, been trying to prevent any reference to the need to hold global warming at 1.5C.

The final draft agreement includes the options of holding temperature increases to 1.5C or “well below two degrees”; evidence, the US envoy, Todd Stern, said on Friday, of the emergence of “a high-ambition coalition”, that “includes many countries” but not all of the 195 countries in the talks.

For the foreign minister of the tiny Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum, that goal is a matter of survival because some islands are already under water. “Put simply, I refuse to go home from Paris without being able to look my grandchildren in the eye and say I have a good deal for you.”

The Saudis have also been blocking the idea that the commitments countries have put on the table in Paris – covering emission reductions between 2020 and 2030 – should be reviewed before that period commences, and potentially increased. The Climate Action Tracker website has calculated those commitments put the world on track for warming of at least 2.7C. Differences on this issue between China and the US were central to the breakdown of the Copenhagen talks six years ago, but in Paris China is taking a softer approach. “We need to enhance the transparency system … it is very important to build trust,” Su said.

There is intense division over how the agreement is worded, in a way that would bind rich countries to specific continued investments, beyond the deal struck in Copenhagen for $100bn (£66bn) a year in public and private money to flow by 2020. (An OECD review said around $60bn was already committed, but poor countries dispute the calculations). And there are also divisions over suggestions big developing countries should join rich countries to make financial contributions to help poor countries reduce their emissions and cope with the impacts of locked-in climate change.

Stern told reporters some countries had “over-read” the issue. He said it was about recognising what was already happening – China pledged US$3.1bn in support to developing countries, when President Xi Jinping met President Obama at the White House this year – rather than introducing any requirement, he said.

A group of 10 Democratic US senators reassured countries at the climate meeting on Saturday they “had Barack Obama’s back” and would defend his agenda in a Republican-controlled Congress. The 10 were the first wave of what is anticipated to be a strong US presence at the Paris meeting, designed to counter Republican attempts to sink Obama’s climate plan. Congress voted last week to repeal the main part of Obama’s plan, especially on rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants. But the Democrats said they would be prepared to defend Obama’s agenda in Congress, and push for stronger climate action.

“What you see here are people who are going to protect what the president is putting on the table here in Paris as a promise from the American people to the world,” Ed Markey, a Democrat senator from Massachusetts, told a press conference. “We are going to back up the president every step of the way.”

Despite the multiple disagreements in Paris, Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN convention on climate change, said the talks were “where we thought they could be”. Officially Saturday is “high level action day” in Paris, the culmination of a process to get emission reduction commitments from bodies other than governments. There have been more than 10,000 such pledges from businesses, local authorities, non government groups and individuals.

Among those attending the event are the former US vice president Al Gore, the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, the actor-cum-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the actor Sean Penn.

Lenore Taylor and Suzanne Goldberg

This article first appeared the Guardian

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