Tension heats up as Paris talks enter home stretch

With just over 24 hours remaining for international negotiators in Paris to push through a global climate change treaty, some key divisions still remain unresolved. Experts give their take on the home stretch of the talks.

Tensions are rising with just over 24 hours remaining for international negotiators in Paris to push through a global climate change treaty, with experts saying that finance has emerged as the biggest unresolved issue. 

The French presidency of the United Nations climate change conference on Thursday released a highly-anticipated draft of the latest agreement - which was shortened from 48 to 27 pages - which showed that negotiators were still wrangling over issues such as the ambition of carbon emission cuts and funding for developing countries.

“Finance might be the deal-breaker,” said Melissa Low, research associate at the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute. “Some countries like the Philippines have said that this is non-negotiable for them because they need the financial help to mobilise resources in order to get their national plans implemented.”

Delegates from nearly 200 nations have been in Le Bourget - where the talks are being held - since November 30 to work out a deal that could be the first ever global agreement to tackle climate change. 

Following the UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries had pledged a Green Climate Fund of US$100 billion a year until 2020 to help developing countries cut emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. But developing nations say the fund has not lived up to its promise.

The OECD noted in a report in October that about US$10 billion a year was flowing into the Fund in the three years through 2012. The figure then rose to US$62 billion by the end of 2014. 

The European Union said that it is “open to the continuation of the $100 billion goal beyond 2020, in the context of a strong deal” but it urged other countries who can contribute to do more.

I think we have a problem here in Paris if developed nations cannot demonstrate good faith in honouring a pledge they made.

Achim Steiner, executive director, the United Nations Environment Programme

“Some of the countries classified as ‘developing’ when the UN climate talks began now have the highest per capita income levels in the world,” the EU said in a statement on Tuesday. “That is why we encourage all countries in a position to do so to contribute to this effort.”

Indeed, rich countries have to step up if the talks are to be successful, said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Speaking to BBC on Tuesday, Steiner said this financial commitment by the industrialised world to the developing world has become a “litmus test” of the talks.

“It is the yardstick that developing countries are now applying and saying, look, we have come to Paris, more than 184 countries have submitted their national climate change strategies. Now where is the other half of the deal?,” Steiner said.

“So I think we have a problem here in Paris if developed nations cannot demonstrate good faith in honouring a pledge they made.”

“Most difficult part of the negotiations”

Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zukifli told Singaporean reporters on Wednesday that while the negotiators agree on broad principles, “when it comes down to the nitty gritty of the agreement itself — the actual wordings and language — that is where things can get unravelled”, 

Elina Bartram, head of the EU delegation, said that the text still has many such “extremes embedded in it”.  

“It also has alternatives for a very solid, ambitious outcome,” Bartram said at press conference on Thursday. “What we will be doing in the coming days is to find a way to combine the middle ground and compromises in a balanced but ambitious package.”

China, the world’s biggest polluter but also the biggest investor in renewable energy, said it is committed to the same goals. Gao Feng, special representative for China’s climate change negotiations, said: “We are at the most difficult part of the negotiations. Today it is important that we have more consultations and exchange views to that by Friday or Saturday, we will get there (an agreement).”

Gao said that Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, one of the French COP Presidency’s 15 facilitators, has told him that the committee will refer to the bilateral agreements signed between China and the United States, EU and India, to try to bridge differences.

Also speaking at the same event, Jose Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste from 2007 to 2012 and a representative of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) bloc, said that rich nations need to acknowledge their historic responsibility in climate change and fund most of the mitigation measures.

They also need to recognize that developing states such as Timor-Leste have special needs that may prevent them from meeting some of the requirements the rich nations are seeking such as a standardized reporting  framework for all nations.

This is the so-called “differentiation” issue raised by both developed and developing country groups. The LDCs are also pushing for the 1.5 rather than the 2 degree target. The former is a more ambitious goal, which will require far deeper cuts to global emissions and save vulnerable low-lying islands in the Pacific from being submerged by 2050. 

We have no plans to renege on (fossil fuel exports). What are we going to tell our people? Our carbon emissions account for nearly zero percent of the world’s total. We are innocent.

Jose Ramos-Horta, former president of Timor-Leste and a representative of the Least Developed Countries bloc

“The Europeans and the Americans are the ones who have been using coal so climate change is thanks to them,” Ramos-Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said.

“But industrialization also brought to us benefits. So what we should do is build bridges so that we reach a target of below 1.5 degrees, and so that the richer countries finance the more fragile economies in terms of mitigation as well as sustaining our economies.” 

Timor-Leste, one of the poorest countries in the world, has been growing its economy by nearly double digits over the past seven years, thanks mainly to its oil and gas exports, all of it going to Japan, Ramos-Horta said.

“We have no plans to renege on (fossil fuel exports), he said. “What are we going to tell our people? Our carbon emissions account for nearly zero percent of the world’s total. We are innocent.”

Business and civic society react

While negotiators have been hard at work, some in the private sector have been supporting the talks by making commitments of billions of dollars to initiatives around such as renewable energy, green buildings, sustainable cities and climate finance.

Assaad Razzouk, chief executive of Sindicatum Sustainable Resources, a global clean energy company headquartered in Singapore, told Eco-Business that for businesses, the most important thing that should come out of Paris is a deal that sends a strong signal that the world is transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

“Business and financial markets are not going to care about differentiation,” he said. “What they will care about is the investment signal that is coming out of the talks.”  

“We have all the technology we need to move to 100 per cent renewable by 2050, but we can’t deploy more low carbon projects without a lot more money,” said Razzouk, who was attending the Paris talks as an observer.  This strong signal will help to mobilise the low-carbon investments that the world needs, he added.

Alix Mazounie, international policy coordinator at Climate Action Network Franca, a coalition of NGOs in the country, said that while the negotiation process has been smooth, it has not yet succeeded in dealing with all the “crunch issues”.

“The Paris ambition mechanism, the loss and damage language, and scaling up commitments by 2018 - these issues all need to get sorted. There are still too many red lines on the table,” she said.

Martin Kaiser, head of international climate politics, Greenpeace International said: “This thing isn’t over until the conference closes but what’s on the table isn’t good enough. It’s a very big problem that the emissions targets on the table will not keep us below the 1.5 degrees of warming and this draft deal does absolutely nothing to change that.” 

Jennifer Morgan, global director of the World’s Resources Institute’s Climate Program, said all the elements for a “strong and equitable” agreement are in place. 

“There is clearly an immense amount of work to be done here in Paris, but things are starting to come together,” she said. “Over the next two days, we need countries to work together in solidarity to keep the ambitious elements in the agreement. It’s all hands on deck to get this done.”

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