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COP21 Diaries: Week One review

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
French President François Hollande opens the COP21 climate change conference French President François Hollande opens the COP21 climate change conference Benjamin Géminel
05 Dec
Marco Magrini reports for Geographical on daily events at the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris

Noble, high-sounding words were spoken a few days ago by 150 presidents, prime ministers and kings, and echoed on the front page of newspapers around the world. So many vows to defend the most valuable commodity shared by all nations – the one and only atmosphere – have offered the distinct feeling that the United Nations conference will lead to us kicking our fossil fuel habit and its nasty side effects.

As the leaders have left Paris though, the negotiations are back to their typical gruelling pace. ‘The issue of funding the poorest countries to sustain their adoption of clean energy sources is crucial: it’s a take it or leave it’, says Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, the South African lady who heads the G77+China negotiating group (which in truth brings together 134 developing countries). ‘There is a distinct fear,’ Cyprian Awudu, a delegate from Cameroon, adds, ‘we're heading into another Copenhagen.’

The reference is to the similar gathering in the Danish capital, six years ago, when an agreement seemed at hand and instead stumbled into a thunderous failure. Such a memory makes negotiators in Paris shudder.

In the end, however unpleasant, these diplomatic frictions confront the affluent with the needy side of the world

The new text of the agreement will be formalised by tomorrow. It will serve as a working basis for the next, decisive week, when every environment minister of the planet will be here. It is a text still dotted with a constellation of square brackets, with all the variables of what you [must] [should] [could] do to achieve this or that goal.

But you cannot grasp the pain of the climate diplomat, without remembering that these negotiations have been carrying on since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was approved with the premise that it was going to be only the first step. Or, to be generous, since 2005, when the Protocol entered into force. It is impossible to count how many meetings were conducted, this year only, in every corner of the world. Yet, a week before the final bell, the multilateral boxing match still appears incredibly open.

COP21 GoreFormer US vice president Al Gore told activists not to feel discouraged at the end of the first week  (Image: Benjamin Géminel)

Kyoto had separated the world into two: the rich countries on the one hand, the poor ones on the other. This was prescribed by the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, a principle already embedded in international law. In simpler words, since carbon dioxide has a more than a century-long impact on the atmosphere, those who began to pollute earlier have more responsibilities than those who started later. To give an idea, according to the calculations presented here in Paris by the outspoken climatologist James Hansen, last year China emitted about 25 per cent of mankind-produced CO2, and the United States 15 per cent. However, if you compute historical contributions (from 1750 to the present), China accounts for 10 per cent and the US for 26 per cent of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

The Paris summit will not end up in a Copenhagen-like fiasco – this is what three delegates from two continents tell me

Finally, the People's Republic has agreed to enter the ranks of the world's largest polluters and do its part with regards to energy efficiency and renewable solutions. Much less India, which, with 400 million people still without electricity, only accepts commitments that do not prevent its poor from escaping poverty. In the end, however unpleasant, these diplomatic frictions confront the affluent with the needy side of the world.

The Paris summit will not end up in a Copenhagen-like fiasco – this is what three delegates from two continents tell me. And it is also what former US vicepresident Al Gore told Friday to a crowd of young, adoring environment activists: ‘At the end of the first week, some of you may feel discouraged. Please don’t. I myself expect a meaningful result at the end’.

In the coming week, negotiatiors not only have to decide the what, but the how much as well: how many billion dollars the industrialised world is willing to pay for years to come, in order to help the developing world skip hydrocarbon-based economic growth altogether, as well as to repair the damages that climate change will have produced in the meantime. A task much, much more down-to-earth than the noble presidential remarks, which came and went.

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