COP21 draft agreement moves forward toward a global deal

Mercy Sr. Aine O'Connor speaks at an anti-fracking rally outside the main venue of COP21 in France. (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)
This article appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.

LE BOURGET, FRANCE — French leaders here Wednesday afternoon released a new, slimmed-down version of a draft agreement to inch negotiations forward toward a global deal to address climate change.

The presentation of a “clean” 29-page draft text came on the 10th day of the United Nations climate change conference, or COP21. The text still harbors numerous bracketed phrases, indicating still up-for-debate issues. Talks were set to continue Wednesday evening with hopes of meeting the Friday evening deadline for a completed deal set by Laurent Fabius, France’s environmental minister and president of COP21.

The latest draft presented three options for holding the rise in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels: either below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), “well below” 2 C, or below 1.5 C. The temperature goals would direct the related required cuts in greenhouse emissions.

The seemingly minutiae of language differences holds significance in that island nations have stressed throughout the negotiations a 2 degrees goal would leave their futures in great peril, a notion that has gained support as COP21 has proceeded, with the U.S. suggesting comfort with option 2 language. According to the Climate Vulnerable Forum and CARE International, as many as 100 nations specifically support the 1.5 C target. 

The Vatican has so far backed a potential agreement seeking a "2 degrees and below" approach. Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace and a member of the Holy See's COP21 delegation, said Tuesday that climate justice needs to be understood in the sense of solidarity among humanity with the weak and most vulnerable. 

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"In that sense, dealing with 2 degrees or 1 degree, the position of the Vatican would be 2 degrees and below, if it can be pushed down. Because if you fix at 1.5, as some of the island dwellers will tell you, 1.5 is even already too high. So for us, it’s 2 degrees and below this 2 degrees mark as much as we can go. And that should be accompanied by a real commitment to decarbonization by the middle of the century. If that doesn’t happen, 1.2 or 2 degrees will still not lead us anywhere," he said at a press briefing. 

Beyond the temperature goal, the accord seeks to establish among the 195 member nations review periods of possibly 5-year intervals, financing, and differentiation in terms of how much each country can and should be required to cut emissions.

Before the Paris climate summit opened, roughly 180 countries submitted emissions-reducing plans, a step to which they agreed at last year’s COP20 in Lima, Peru. The plans, known as intended nationally determined contributions, as they stand would only hold global warming between 2.7 and 3.7 C, though observers and others hope that regular assessments would lead to a ratcheting up of commitments.

The text, the fifth version at the Paris talks, whittled significantly though not all of the bracketed language that indicates outstanding points of contention. The previous draft counted more than 900 bracketed words and phrases.

Before the draft's release Daniele Violetti, chief of staff of the secretariat of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, when asked about the state of current negotiations compared to previous COPs told NCR, “There is this strong political will that this is happening. And of course, they are working on fine-tuning it, but it’s there. Everybody wants this to happen.” He identified differentiation and finance among the main hurdles left to overcome.

As the draft text was unveiled, Mercy Sr. Aine O’Connor, the Mercy Global Action Coordinator at the U.N., stressed it is “essential” that reference to a human rights framework -- what she described as "the most fundamental and the most basic guiding principle" -- makes its way into in the body of the final text and not limited to the introduction.

"The fundamental and core to the human rights foundation for the United Nations, for the policy-making for the world, is do no harm. And states have an obligation to do no harm," she told NCR. "So a critical voice for us, and the reason why we keep pushing the human rights framework, at its minimum, it does actually secure some basic dignities of life for people, and actually obligates governments to say in the policies that we choose to address climate that we won’t do harm for this generation and for the next." 

In the latest draft, reference to human rights remained in article two, though still bracketed:

“[This Agreement will be implemented on the basis of equity and in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances and on the basis of respect for human rights.]”

“We cannot, at this historical moment in time, have a climate agreement without it being based on the human-rights-based framework agreement and obligations that governments are here and representing the people for. And we believe that the human rights framework really would help us get through and address some of the most critical climate-related issues of our day,” O’Connor said.

A day earlier members of the U.N. delegation of the Holy See, which holds permanent observer status but no voting rights, said it perceived “really a universal willingness” among delegates to arrive at an “ambitious legally binding and transformative” deal.

“This collective willingness is a manifestation of the recognition that we must do something for our environment,” said Archbishop Bernadito Auza, the Vatican’s permanent U.N. observer.

At the same time, Auza noted "a number of substantial difficulties" in the negotiations, among them:

  • different economic levels among countries;
  • different development levels of countries;
  • different degrees of threats provoked by climate change among countries;
  • national and regional interests.

 “We hope also that although there are substantial differences, in the end we will find, all the parties will find common ground in order to arrive at an agreement -- an agreement that is not only the least common denominator, but as much as possible the highest common denominator, and therefore ambitious,” Auza said.

Turkson said the greatest contribution the Holy See delegation could offer the climate talks was to encourage and strengthen negotiators while providing a moral rudder. He stressed the need for a departure from viewing climate justice through financial and historical responsibilities and instead in the sense of solidarity.

"Humanity is one family. As brothers and sisters, we have only one home, one common home, and we all must care for it," he said to the negotiating body Dec. 8.

Turkson expanded on the concept at a later press briefing: “The issue at COP21 is not really to criminalize or to point accusing fingers of who has contributed most to the problem we have now. Neither is it an attempt to assert innocence at what has been done and therefore ask for recompense of anything. That is not a trust. The trust of this negotiation for which the Holy See provides the moral stimulus … is a sense of the human family, fraternity or the brotherhood of the human family, and a great sense of solidarity which we must have.

“Some of us live in front-land situations. There are some who at the instance of any storm have to climb the coconut tree and strap themselves to the tree to be able to withstand the storm. Some have the agriculture areas on islands already underwater. These are the type of things that invite us to solidarity,” he said.

The “clean” text was released at a meeting at 1 p.m., Paris time, with discussions set to take place later in the evening.

“This new version will allow us to take a broad view of the balance we need to find across all elements. I do hope that a significant number of brackets will be removed. A number of political issues will require broader discussions to ensure a coherent result,” Fabius said Tuesday night during a meeting of the Committee of Paris, which he convened over the weekend amid critiques of a lack of transparency in the proceedings.

O'Connor said that she had not had a chance to review the latest draft, but said she sensed an urgency to address climate change. 

The most important thing, she said, "is that [the agreement] has flesh in it, that we can actually say how do we go from urgency to putting [into action] real-life solutions, and how do we move from voluntary commitments to commitments that actually will make the difference in the world as we know it today. We don’t have 20 years, we don’t have 50 years anymore." 

The timeline Fabius presented placed formal adoption of a final text at 6 p.m. on Friday. Asked about his optimism for the conference to meet that deadline, Violetti told NCR the proceedings so far remain on track.

“I will not say it’s going to be 6 p.m., right? But something is possible,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 2:23 a.m., central.

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