Politics and science clash in latest draft climate agreement from Paris

Negotiations in Paris will extend into Saturday as an uneven draft climate agreement emerges.

Charles Platiau/Reuters
The slogan '1.5 Degrees' is projected on the Eiffel Tower as part of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) in Paris, France, December 11, 2015.

It's quiet here in suburban Paris. On the 12th day of UN climate negotiations, officials had hoped to finish a deal to curb global emissions and adapt to a warming planet. That's not going to happen, at least not yet. 

After a late night Thursday, negotiators are back in small, closed-door meetings. The hope is to present a final agreement Saturday morning Paris time, which will then need to be reviewed by the nearly 200 parties involved.

"I think there is a way to go forward, that there’s a reasonableness," US Secretary of State John Kerry said during remarks from the conference Friday. "And over the course of the next hours this should take shape, and it’s possible that it could come to a conclusion sometime tomorrow."

Progress has been made over the course of the summit with nations are united in ways never before seen in two decades of climate diplomacy. But two big questions remain: Who will pay for cleaner energy and the infrastructure needed to protect against a changing climate?  And how frequently will countries come back to the negotiating table to renew pledges?

The latest draft agreement – presumably the penultimate version – suggests answers to those questions. But at its core lies an apparent inconsistency. On the one hand, the latest text has ratcheted up its overall political ambition, while, on the other hand, it has muddied the targets by which the world might achieve it. 

First, the political ambition: The latest draft leans toward an even stronger temperature goal than previous drafts. It seeks to hold the temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and to "pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase," to 1.5 degrees C." That's a huge win for small island states, whose very existence is threatened by the sea level rise expected in a 1.5-degree world.

It also comes as somewhat of a surprise. It will be difficult enough to reduce emissions to keep warming within 2 degrees C. Pushing for 1.5 degrees C would require an even more dramatic transition to zero-carbon fuels. Still, an increasing body of evidence suggests it's a far safer threshold for limiting environmental impacts than the 2-degree scenario, and parties here seem to agree on somehow incorporating it into the final text.

"Considering the political realities and how we always knew we would not get everything from here, it seems like we are about to get a stronger temperature target and a decent long-term goal that actually communicates, for the first time, that we need to head for an emissions phase out," Kaisa Kosonen,  climate policy advisor for Greenpeace, told the Monitor.

But, she adds, that goal is "not consistent with the current [emissions] targets."

Many scientists here agree. The political ambition of a 2-degree or even 1.5-degree target clashes with other parts of the draft that blur emissions-reductions targets. The text calls for a peaking of greenhouse-gas emissions "as soon as possible," and aims for "greenhouse gas emissions neutrality in the second half of the century." Previous drafts included specific years and percentages for reductions, and scientists say they want those details reincorporated.

What's more, current climate pledges put the world on a path toward a 3 degree-rise in temperature, according to the UN's own analysis. Many hoped this draft would require countries to ratchet up those goals before the end of the decade, but that kind of language has yet to materialize. That again speaks to a gap between the ambitious long-term target, and the practical realities of meeting that target.

"We cannot have a situation where we say 'under 2 degrees' on the one hand, with [national climate pledges] that don’t live up to it on the other hand," Johan Rockström, an environmental scientist and director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, told journalists Friday. "It has to roll out consistently and rationally … because otherwise it's pointless."

Of course, this isn't the final draft. A lot can happen between now and when the agreement is completed. Portions may be watered down or strengthened, depending on how countries move to or from their original negotiating positions. 

"Believe it or not, the current text is progressive compared to previous agreements," Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in a panel Friday. "There is hope for the night."

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