COP21: A waiting game

Reading time: 4 minutes
10 December 2015

Damian Ryan, Head of International Policy, The Climate Group, writes about the 21st UN climate conference, COP21, in Paris. You can follow our activities at

With just 24 hours left before the official end of COP21 there is much speculation in the halls of Le Bourget conference centre about what the outcome could look like.

Yesterday, the COP President, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, presented a revised clean text to Parties. The document included proposals that could provide the basis for an ambitious and durable agreement.

Through last night and into this morning, ministers and their negotiators met to move the text forward. Reports suggest that progress was slow but with a strong desire by all Parties to find a deal. This has opened the way for another revision of the text from the French Presidency, which is expected later today.

The key crunch issues remain the same: differentiation (as a cross cutting issue), mitigation (particularly economy-wide reduction targets for all countries); transparency (flexibility for reporting requirements needed); and finance (and its credibility).

The good news is that within the current text there are arguably landing zones for all key issues. The question is whether ministers can deliver outcomes that maintain the highest level of ambition.

Obviously, compromise from all Parties will be required over the coming 24 hours.

For developed countries this will mean giving ground on differentiation so that it is clear that as Parties, they will continue to take the lead in tackling climate change. In return, however, developing countries will need to move away from the binary and fixed definition of countries established by the UNFCCC in 1992.

Signals from many parties suggest that a move to a spectrum of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ among countries is achievable.

In terms of mitigation ambition, we could well see 1.5C in the deal, but a compromise of ‘under 2C’ may be the landing zone. In terms of how this temperature target is operationalized, it is likely that the long-term global goal will be qualitative rather than quantitative one.

This probably means a choice of either ‘decarbonisation’ or ‘climate neutrality’ linked to a date or period, such as ‘by the middle or end of the century’.  The position of some developing countries, notably India, will be critical here as they have argued a long-term goal is not necessary.

On finance, countries will need to find accommodation on post-2020 finance. Developed countries do not want to be locked into a quantifiable and ongoing provision of finance, so reference to the US$100 billion per annum figure seems unlikely.

Language that commits developed countries to provide finance “above existing levels”, possibly with a regular review, could be a possible compromise. If a qualitative description is used, it will need to be as tight and ambitious as possible to give it credibility and to gain developing country support.

Transparency of mitigation action remains a key issue for the US and developed countries generally. They want rules that apply equally to all countries. Showing flexibility on key developing country asks (eg loss & damage, finance, capacity building – and transparency of support from developed countries on these issues) will be necessary to unlock agreement here.

The US is apparently very active on the Loss & Damage issue and its announcement yesterday to double funding for adaptation to US$800 million a year, should have opened some doors.

If these central issues can be unlocked then others will be bridged as a result through the normal deal making process. This includes areas such as ‘cooperative mechanisms’ (UN speak for carbon trading), forests and technology.

It would of course be wrong to conclude at this stage that everything is in the bag. It may be that the process – which has so far gone remarkably smoothly under the expert guidance of the COP President – still needs to have its crisis moment.

And if so, this will probably happen in the coming 12 hours. As with past COPs, such moments have the benefit of sharpening minds and as a result breaking down the last remaining barriers.

For the moment though, it is a waiting game for observers and many delegates as this critical COP heads inevitably toward its conclusion.

By Damian Ryan, Head of International Policy, The Climate Group

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