COP21: French minister to preside over climate conference

Tension between developed and developing worlds an obstacle in global warming fight

The 21st United Nations Conference of Parties on climate change, known as COP21, will begin one month from today. As president of the conference, France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius has staked his legacy on its success.

“My task is to achieve an ambitious compromise, and the two words must be taken together,” Fabius said in his office on the quai d’Orsay. “It must be a compromise for everyone to accept it, but it has to be ambitious, because if we compromise at the expense of our goals we will not have done our job.”

Fabius is caught in a contest of wills between the resentful but often justified demands of the developing world, and rich countries reluctant to sacrifice in the interest of the planet. He is helped by the Peruvian environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, whose mandate as president of COP20 technically runs until November 30th. “It’s extremely useful having one country from the north and one from the south,” Fabius said.

Tension between the G77, comprised of 134 developing and emerging countries, and the developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), came to the fore when 1,500 negotiators of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – known as the ADP – met in Bonn from October 19th-23rd. It was their last chance to approve a draft treaty before COP21.


In a classic example of one step forward, two steps back, the G77 rejected the draft drawn up by Ahmed Djoghlaf and Dan Reifsnyder, the Algerian and US co-chairs of the ADP. The previous version, adopted in Geneva in February and reworked in July, came to more than 80 pages. Djoghlaf and Reifsnyder had cut it down to 20.

“The G77 said the text was ‘unbalanced’ and to the detriment of developing countries,” Fabius said. “That was their principal argument. We had to build a new text which is longer and with more options, but the structure of the first text is preserved . . . Ideally, we would have put forward a very short project with few options left to be decided.”

The final pre-COP21 draft treaty runs to 51 pages. Where negotiators could not agree, options are presented in brackets. Some paragraphs in article three, regarding the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, contain 16 different options.

Unwieldy text

When ADP negotiators resume work in Paris on December 1st, they will have one week to boil down the unwieldy text. They will present it to Fabius, who will work with ministers for foreign affairs and the environment to agree on a final treaty by December 11th.

Some 80 ministers will attend a “pre-COP21” summit in Paris from November 8th-10th. Asked whether it would not be preferable to abandon the ADP process, Fabius replied “there is nothing wrong with being a little diplomatic”.

Eighty heads of state and government have accepted an invitation from president François Hollande and himself to attend the opening day of COP21 on November 30th, Fabius said. Their presence is supposed to create “political impetus” for the negotiations that follow. Barack Obama, the Chinese and Indian leaders Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Matteo Renzi have accepted. Vladimir Putin has not yet replied.

Despite its disappointing results, the last Bonn session made progress on important issues, Fabius says. The mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation, away from carbon fuels and towards more reliance on renewable energy, are the two pillars of the fight against global warming. The OECD estimates only 16 per cent of finance has been devoted to adaptation. As the developing countries demand, “Bonn arrived at a broad consensus on the necessity of devoting more resources to adaptation”, Fabius said.

In advance of COP21, 155 of 195 countries have submitted “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs, indicating how they will reduce their carbon output. Together, the 155 account for 90 per cent of global emissions. But when added up, their promised cuts will not limit the rise in the world’s temperature to 1.5 or 2 degrees by 2100.

The Paris treaty will avoid the “catastrophic scenario” of a 4, 5 or 6 degree rise in temperature, but at present levels of commitments, the temperature is still likely to rise 3 degrees, Fabius said.

This has strengthened the French foreign minister’s argument for periodic, upward revision of INDCs. “I have personally insisted for a long time on the necessity of a revision clause,” he said. “Bonn strengthened support for this mechanism, which is important.” Fabius said there was also “a move towards convergence” on follow-up to assess whether countries fulfil commitments to reduce emissions. However, he added, the expression “non-intrusive mechanism” comes up often.

Binding agreement

Asked what would represent a successful conference outcome for him, Fabius said, “The first criterion of success is a legally binding agreement, approved by all 195 countries – which has never happened – saying we commit ourselves not to go beyond 1.5 or 2 degrees.”

The above-mentioned revision clause is Fabius’s second criterion. The manner, date and periodicity of revision are all under discussion. “We would be extremely disappointed if the question was not resolved positively,” he said.

Developing countries have stated they will not sign up to an agreement if the $100 billion which developed countries promised in annual aid for adaptation is not forthcoming, or if it is not extended beyond 2020. The OECD reported this month that developed countries spent $61.8 billion on helping the developing world adapt to global warming in 2014. The G77 contested the validity of the OECD study. Though finance and the transfer of technology may not be included in the Paris treaty, they are a prerequisite for its success, Fabius said.

Carbon pricing and the need to diminish $500 billion in annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry will not figure in the treaty either, but they will be discussed in Paris.