Clinching Paris COP21 deal: How the French did it

There will be no shortage of people seeking to take credit for concluding Paris accords

From left are Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, and president-designate of COP21 and French President Francois Hollande celebrating  final agreement  at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 12th, 2015. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

From left are Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, and president-designate of COP21 and French President Francois Hollande celebrating final agreement at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 12th, 2015. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

 

Success has many parents, and there will be no shortage of people attempting to take credit for concluding the Paris accords - the most serious attempt ever made to slow global warming.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister who presided over the COP21 climate conference, told staff that if he failed he would be blamed, but if he succeeded President Francois Hollande could take the credit.

Hollande likes to recall how daring it was to offer to hold the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. No one else wanted to host it.

The 2011 COP gathering in Durban committed all 195 UN member states to reaching a universal agreement on fighting climate change by the end of 2015.

“The big difference with previous COPs was the sheer number of parties involved,” says Pierre Radanne, a veteran of 16 COPs and climate adviser to governments and NGOs for three decades. “At Kyoto in 1997, only 38 developed countries made commitments.”

Gesture to ecologists

Hollande’s adviser on climate change, Marie-Hélène Aubert, suggested during his 2012 presidential campaign that he offer to hold COP21 as a gesture to ecologists who supported him. “When Hollande announced in September 2012 that France would host COP21, he had no idea what he was getting into,” Radanne says.

Foreign minister Fabius was appalled. “I discussed it with him at the Doha COP in 2012,” Radanne recalls. “He said, ‘It’s going to be very, very difficult. Extremely complicated. I don’t know if we can do it.”

In the autumn of 2013, Hollande and Fabius met with scientists from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who had documented the “unequivocal warming of the climate system”. The French leaders were alarmed and motivated by the scientists’ findings.

During Hollande’s five-year term, France is not scheduled to preside over the EU, G8 or G20. COP21 was his chance to achieve international status.

When he travelled to Washington, Beijing and Berlin, the main question leaders asked him was: “What are you going to do with the Paris conference?”

“Hollande realised that his place among the greats of this world depended on the climate question,” Radanne says.

Initially reluctant

In the meantime, the initially reluctant Fabius threw himself whole-heartedly into preparations, even as he grappled with crises in Syria, Ukraine and the Iranian nuclear programme. The most effective French foreign minister in two decades, Fabius clocked up the equivalent of a round-the-world trip every month.

Good casting was crucial to his success. In June 2014, Fabius appointed Laurence Tubiana, a highly respected political scientist and economist who has taught at Sciences Po in Paris and Columbia University in New York, to be his chief negotiator.

Tubiana has strong contacts in developing and emerging countries, and in the UN. It was a sign of her determination that she showed up for the conference in Le Bourget one week after having her appendix removed.

Fabius’s method was to appoint a trusted deputy to every important aspect of the conference: security; logistics; communications; finance; administration...

“The last time France held a big UN conference was in 1948, for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Pierre-Henri Guignard, the career diplomat who Fabius asked to organise the conference. “A lot of us didn’t even know what a COP was.”

Sixty people worked under Guignard’s orders to prepare the conference. “On the night of November 13 [when jihadists killed 130 people in Paris] they were all looking for each other, and I realised we were like a family; the mark of a good team,” he said.

Possibility of attacks

The government decided to go ahead with the conference, despite indications from intelligence services that there was a strong possibility of further attacks. “We were already on maximum alert after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January,” Guignard said. The only important change was to physically separate the civil society and UN sections of the conference.

France’s diplomatic network, one of the most developed in the world, was a big advantage. Ambassadors were instructed to wine and dine contacts to impress upon them French seriousness of purpose. Fabius asked for monthly reports on climate policy and opinion in the countries where they are posted.

And Fabius managed to avoid a major pitfall. “There was a huge risk that France, which has a high opinion of herself and of her place in history, would sin by arrogance,” says Radanne. “France had to be very present, very active and very humble... They refrained from saying, ‘We’re an old nation. We’ll tell you what you should do’.”

Fabius and Tubiana invited the ministers who concluded the negotiations at Le Bourget to three Paris summits in the months preceding the conference. “It enabled the French to test ideas and to test people too,” says Simon Roger, who covered COP21 for Le Monde. “They saw who they could rely on as ‘facilitators’ in the negotiations. It was important that the French not do everything themselves.”

Fabius developed a personal rapport with the negotiators. “He calls them all by their first names,” says Radanne. “That familiarity, collegiality, is very important.”

Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s climate envoy to COP21, credited the “transparency” and “inclusiveness” of the French approach. “They haven’t been going into small rooms with private texts and carving everybody up,” she said.

“What you have to understand is that at the end of the day, these people know each other very well. This is an eco-system.

“Climate negotiators spend more time with each other than they do with their families. Knowing each other and trusting each other is very important to being able to carve out a deal.”

In this instance, the French propensity for talking a subject to death served a purpose.

Insufficient grasp

Ministers had an insufficient grasp of the issues at earlier conferences, says Liz Gallagher of the E3G environmental think tank. “The French teased it apart, again and again and again, so we’ve really been able to get to grips with it, understand it, and people have a much clearer picture about what this agreement can deliver.”

The process of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), whereby each country volunteered a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions, was agreed in Warsaw in 2012. But the process dragged, as developing countries waited to see if the developed countries would cough up the $100 billion in annual assistance they’d promised.

That 186 of 195 UN members submitted INDCs is considered something of a miracle. France, Germany, the EU, UN agencies and the World Bank provided funds and expertise to help countries with little experience to draw up their plans.

There are reports that Fabius will soon leave the foreign ministry. “Having worked as hard as he has, he probably wants to leave with the stature of the man who saved the planet with President Hollande,” says Simon Roger of Le Monde.

But Pierre Radanne insists credit belongs to the countries who struggled to reach agreement. “The midwife or doctor who delivers the baby is not the mother or father of the child,” he says, adding that Fabius was merely “the obstetrician”.

The most important thing about the Paris accord, Radanne insists, is that “It’s the first time all the countries of the world have considered their future with the idea they would go there together, having surmounted their historic inequalities.”