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The devil is in the detail

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For those of us unlucky enough to be in the weeds of the UNFCCC negotiations, the last Bonn session left us a bit confused.

It all kicked off in high, albeit contained, drama with countries pushing back against the draft text serving as the basis of the Paris Agreement. Before Bonn, this text had a radical makeover; the negotiations’ co-chairs had put it on the Atkins Diet and given it a new suit. Negotiators are not usually the most comfortable with radical change. As such, a kerfuffle broke out and pretty much everyone unleashed their pent-up frustration with the new text. But, most importantly, countries didn’t want to chuck the baby out with the bathwater, and promised to behave like the medical profession undertaking ‘surgical insertions’ to boost the new document.

Soon after, things quietened down and work began on substance. And some unusual suspects began to play nicely. Countries as far flung as the Marshall Islands, Japan, Ivory Coast and Saudi Arabia came together to propose solutions that could bridge between opposing positions. Whenever good stuff has happened in these talks, like at the Kyoto and Durban conference, it is largely due to countries, who are not always BFFs, coming together to find solutions. This sign that countries are really starting to own the text will help provide a smooth landing strip for Paris.

But it wasn’t all rosy in Bonn. Progress was made on some issues like the Long-Term Goal and transparency, but it was also uneven. Finance beyond 2020 and Loss and Damage are two crucial issues that Paris must deliver on – but negotiations on these topics are still heavily polarised. It’s likely that a way forward on these two issues remains unclear because countries are planning to use them in the traditional dance of brinkmanship in the COP’s final hours. This is a real shame. We know all too well from experience that holding back on one issue results in a zero-sum game, knocking out progress on other issues.

So what happens next? Despite only having a few weeks to go, an enormous amount of meetings are lined up. Firstly, the pre-COP. This annual gathering of around 80 ministers from across the world will descend on the French capital from 8-10th November to discuss the Paris package as a whole. Secondly, we have the G20 Summit. Here, leaders from the world’s largest economies will be talking about climate among other issues. Thirdly, we have the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, or CHOGM for short. This will bring together an odd bunch of countries that form the Commonwealth, including the UK, India, the Maldives, Australia, Kiribati and Canada! And last but not least, the French have confirmed the rumours that Leaders will be coming to Paris for the first day of the COP to show their commitment to a strong outcome.

With such a huge amount going on it’s easy to get lost. So let’s keep it simple. There are two main thrusts of activity that can get us into a better position for Paris. The first is getting ministers to appreciate that the devil in the detail. While the major components of an agreement are in place, the quality of the deal still remains in question. Technical details can turn Paris from an average outcome into an enduring regime. Precision and clarity are critical to avoid confusion in how different actors (mis)interpret Paris. Secondly, setting up what we do post-Paris is a must to ensure we don’t do a rerun of Copenhagen and leave an empty vacuum straight after the COP. To do this we’re going to need our Leaders and ministers to place climate on the agenda for 2016’s major multilateral events, such as the World Economic Forum, the G7 and G20, the follow-up to the SDGs and discussions within the UN system. By getting prepared now, we can avoid the pitfalls of Copenhagen, and turn decarbonisation and building resilience into what Laurence Tubiana calls the ‘new normal’.

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