Le Bourget is Paris’ first airport; it was the airfield where American aviator Charles Lindbergh landed after making history’s first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1927. It is the site of the opening scene of one of the greatest movies ever made, Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” filmed in 1939. And since 1909, it has hosted the Paris Air Show, the oldest and best-known of its kind.
Since last week, Le Bourget has also hosted the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The negotiations to produce a new agreement that is “universal” (applicable to all countries and regional economic integration groups, such as the European Union) and “legally binding” (effective in the respective jurisdictions of the 195 “Parties”) are going well—well enough for both negotiators and observers to start using the airport metaphor. The talks, delegates to COP21 say, are poised, finally, for takeoff.
Developments in the negotiations, now down to the last two days of an exhausting fortnight, may still prevent the “Draft Paris Outcome” from taking off. Perhaps countries like Saudi Arabia may balk if full decarbonization is adopted as an objective; perhaps energy-hungry economies like India or China may resist strong language about limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Perhaps climate-vulnerable countries may find the draft phrasing on climate finance (shorthand for the financial obligations of developed economies, which are responsible for most of the accumulated greenhouse gas emissions over time) too weak and vague.
Certainly, in the first week of negotiations, there was a considerable amount of on-ground turbulence. After the high-profile rollout, with the extraordinary participation of some 150 heads of state or government, the talks then ran into familiar problems, including especially the rich-poor divide. Very little progress was achieved in the first four days; a three-year review of the 2-degree target even ended acrimoniously on Thursday, Dec. 3, on account of pressure from Saudi Arabia. The Philippines, the current and highly visible chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, issued a scathing statement:
“We have to really question at this point the basis for not forwarding the draft text to the COP given the scale of the work undertaken and the gravity of the decision. The parties who stand in the way of recommending a sound decision based on the information available will be remembered by the children of today for the failure in Paris and we will shout it from the roof tops.”
The sluggish pace of negotiations over the language of the draft agreement and its implementing decision prompted the French hosts—under the UN system, the hosts serve as president of the conference and enjoy a wide latitude for initiative—to fast-track the talks, at the same time preserving the openness of the process which the French presidency put in place.
The result can be seen—and the original sense of momentum can be felt—in the size of the draft text. At the end of four days, the working draft of the new agreement was reduced from 51 pages to 50; in the next two days, however, the draft was substantially reduced, ending in a 21-page text.
One reason the Paris talks enjoy momentum, in contrast with the Copenhagen talks in 2009, which were mired in inertia, is that the current process emphasizes freedom of commitment; 184 of the 195 parties to the framework convention have submitted their INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, based on their own assessment of their carbon status and their development objectives.
But the INDCs are a problem, too. Taken together, the INDCs may slow down the rise in global temperatures to 2.7 degrees, much lower than the 3-degrees-and-up, business-as-usual scenario, but still higher than the 2-degree target reached with difficulty in 2009, and much higher than the 1.5-degree goal that more than 100 countries taking part in COP21 have now adopted.
But that would be a problem for later, when the plane has taken off. Right now, a sense of calibrated optimism pervades the convention halls in Le Bourget. The momentum is palpable, the moment is there for the taking. “History is unfolding,” said Secretary Emmanuel de Guzman of the Climate Change Commission. It’s about time.
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