In essence, the United Nations COP21 climate change conference in Paris is about mathematics. ‘We have reduced the text from 43 to 29 pages,’ announced the conference president Laurent Fabius, while distributing the first official draft of the treaty to 195 world delegations. ‘We were able,’ he added, as if marking a diplomatic triumph, ‘to reduce the square brackets by two-thirds,’ or about 66 per cent.
These brackets, which are not about algebra, define every option that you [must] [should] [could] do in order to prevent catastrophic climate change in a more or less distant future. Since there were 940 of these open options just two days ago, a 66 per cent reduction means that around 313 issues have still to be decided. ‘We made great progress,’ Fabius told delegates, ‘but in the next 48 hours we still have many compromises to reach. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’
The feeling circulates around the conference that the (dis)United Nations are close to an agreement that, after years and years of diplomatic failures, could make history. Its scope, anyway, is still uncertain: it could be anything but memorable.
As an integral part of the diplomatic equation, three major issues - Fabius admits - remain open. The first is ‘differentiation’, a weird word with slippery implications: a redefinition in the boundaries between developed and developing countries, as the second category currently includes nations like China (now the largest carbon dioxide emitter on the planet) and Saudi Arabia (which notoriously tops the per-capita income rankings). The transition from one category to the other involves obligations in reducing emissions and in participating in financing efforts.
The second open issue regards financial resources, where maths becomes crucial. The three options prescribed in Article 6 include an annual flow of $100billion from the rich world to the poor, with the right to increase it, but never to taper it off. ‘Internationally, private sector finance for climate projects has already reached roughly $650billion a year,’ reveals US Secretary of State John Kerry, while announcing an upgrade in American contributions. The head of US diplomacy added that, by 2035, the demand for energy investment will reach nearly $50trillion: much of that, hopefully, in clean energy.
Finally, there remains the crucial issue of the climate targets to be aimed for. Among the various options, the draft text also includes the goal to contain a rise in temperature within the 1.5ºC mark, though scientists have made it clear that this would require massive undertakings, such as achieving zero-emissions within 20 years. The Paris agreement, if signed, will enter into force in 2021. In this rather long time frame, it is regrettable that the current draft dictates a revision of national pledges in 2023 (or 2024) onwards, instead of 2018 as it was expected.
‘We still have the ingredients for an ambitious outcome in Paris’, a WWF spokesperson says. ‘But they still haven’t taken the hard decisions yet. Ministers now have just two days to decide to either put us on a path that will limit us to 1.5ºC of warming, or towards a 3ºC world.’ Other NGO and observers, share a similar concern.
‘Be prepared to work at night,’ Fabius exhorted the delegations. If you want to take some 300 decisions in the remaining 48 hours, just do the maths. Climate diplomats don’t have an hour to spare.