Climate negotiations a ‘race against the clock’ after 23 years of talk and no action

COP 21 officials urge world leaders to ‘look beyond national interests’

Officials responsible for the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change are attempting to inject a new sense of urgency into negotiations, in the hope of concluding a "global and ambitious" agreement during the Paris conference, which takes place from November 30th to December 11th.

“There are fewer than 100 days left,” the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said at a press conference at the French foreign ministry. “We have only 10 real negotiating days. I sincerely hope negotiators will look beyond national interests.”

Negotiations by the ADP (Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) are to resume, in Bonn, on August 31st. An earlier conference in Durban set December as the final deadline for an agreement to limit the rise in the world’s temperature to 2 degrees.


Fifty-six countries responsible for two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have submitted their INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions). Mr Ban told


Le Monde

newspaper the “level of ambition” demonstrated by the 56 commitments was insufficient to limit the rise in temperature to 2 degrees.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister who will preside over COP 21, stood beside Mr Ban. (COP stands for the Conference of the Parties to an international convention.) The run-up to the conference is a "race against the clock", Mr Fabius said repeatedly. Greenhouse gas emissions are "the root of the problem" because some remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

“We will never make up the time we lose,” Mr Fabius said. “If we don’t start soon, we can no longer win this race. There is no plan B. There is no planet B. By continuing to accumulate greenhouse gases, we will make it impossible to resolve the problem.”

Climate negotiations began in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. “We have negotiated and discussed without taking concrete action for 23 years,” Mr Ban said.

"This has taken too much time," said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the Peruvian environment minister who presided over COP 20 in Lima. "We have talked enough to take a decision."

The climate debate, particularly the ADP negotiations, are bogged down in acronyms and process. Mr Fabius said the ADP must produce a draft agreement closer to 20 pages than the present 85. Mr Pulgar-Vidal said the climate conference must surpass formal process: “It is about our ability to take decisions.”

Mr Ban’s incomprehensible French and Mr Pulgar-Vidal’s challenging English seemed a metaphor for the negotiations.

Mr Pulgar-Vidal promised COP 21 would not be a spectacular failure, like the 2009 COP 15 in Copenhagen, because: “We are in a very different process. We are building consensus based on confidence, working from bottom to top, giving the opportunity to countries to put their own INDCs on the table.”

Honour system

But can a plan based on an honour system work when the prosperity of national economies is at stake? Everyone must understand climate change is their responsibility, Mr Pulgar-Vidal said. “This is not the time for accusations.”

Yet numerous countries continue prospecting for gas and petroleum, including the shale oil that has freed the US of reliance on the Middle East. Politicians are not trying to slow the burgeoning hydrocarbons industry that is in total contradiction with the fight against global warming.

At Copenhagen, heads of state and government ran out of time. To avoid a repeat, French president Francois Hollande says he will summon leaders at the beginning, not at the end, of the 12-day conference.

Mr Ban said the main obstacles to an agreement are different levels of ambition and responsibility; whether the agreement will be legally binding and enforceable; and the question of finance.

Developed countries have pledged $100 billion for a Green Climate Fund to compensate the developing world for being asked to forego the phase of intensive industrial development that would rely on fossil fuels.


Some developing countries have made it clear they will not approve an accord in Paris unless the funds are forthcoming.

The Green Climate Fund “was already a promise that was not kept. It must now be an obligation,” Mr Hollande said earlier this week. “Without the hundred billion, there will not be an agreement.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor