Carl Court

PARIS—What is making the Paris conference different from the previous 20 annual climate conferences is that everybody is playing from the same book. In the opening ceremonies on Monday, in which some 150 heads of state participated, the major speakers stated essentially the same goals for the conference and the same standards of success. In a nutshell, the agreement is get the world onto a path that could keep warming below two degrees Celsius in this century, and preferably closer to 1.5°C, and to that end certain agreed-upon elements will be essential.

This is in stark contrast to previous conferences, where there always were sharp divisions between the United States and European positions, and between industrial and developing countries. The contrast is particularly sharp compared to the 1997 Kyoto climate summit, where the U.S. delegation agreed to provisions that the U.S. Senate had already specifically repudiated, or the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, where the Kyoto process died at the hands of the United States and China while the Europeans looked on helplessly.

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French President Francois Hollande, in his welcoming remarks, asked what would enable us to say the Paris agreement is good, even “great.” First, regular review and assessment of commitments, to get the world on a credible 1.5-2°C path. Second, solidarity of response, so that no state does nothing and none is “left alone.” Third, evidence of a comprehensive change in human consciousness, allowing eventually for introduction of much stronger measures, such as a global price or tax on carbon.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon articulated similar but somewhat more detailed criteria: the agreement must be lasting, dynamic and respectful of the balance between industrial and developing countries, and enforceable, with critical reviews of pledges even before 2020. He noted that 180 countries have now submitted climate action pledges, an unprecedented achievement, but stressed that those pledges need to be progressively strengthened over time.

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Remarkably, not only were the major convenors of the conference speaking in essentially the same terms, but civil society as well. The Climate Action Network, representing virtually all the non-government organizations that show up for the annual climate meetings, has signed onto the official agenda. The umbrella group is so far confining itself to making detailed and constructive suggestions about how key provisions of the agreement might be strengthened, above all those having to do with review and revision of pledges.

At Copenhagen, a division in the NGO community emerged between the traditional environmental organizations that always had participated in the climate meetings, and groups pursuing a broader agenda of economic and social justice, in the spirit of the Seattle World Trade Organizations protests of 1999. Early on there were clashes between the more radical protesters and the police, leading to many arrests. A bad situation got worse because the Danish conference center turned out to be overbooked, so that many NGO representatives were literally shut out and civil society had little opportunity to directly influence the negotiations.

In Paris, the French have provided a vast conference center near the former airport Le Bourget (where Lindbergh landed on May 21, 1927), with ample space for all. Everything is welcoming and well-oiled. There are helpful people everywhere, not just at the conference complex but all over the city. During the first two days of the conference, local transportation is completely free, and conference participants get free rides for the two-week duration of the meeting. In short, no effort has been spared to keep everybody happy, and to provide a physical space and ambiance conducive to the conclusion of the great agreement Hollande hopes for.

Of course the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris two weeks ago have cast a shadow on the conference, and during the first day’s ceremonies every world leader felt called upon to say something about them before saying anything else. Heavily armed police and soldiers are seen everywhere in Paris, often brandishing automatic weapons. But security at the conference itself has been amazingly efficient, so that it never takes more than a few minutes to get into the meeting complex.

The one ticking time bomb that could upend the proceedings is the issue of climate finance. At Copenhagen, there was rebellion of the developing countries when word spread of a draft agreement that seemed to undermine a core principle of the climate negotiations: the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities, as between rich and poor nations. To quell the rebellion, industrial country leaders promised they would provide developing countries with climate change finance amounting to $100 billion per year by 2020—a sum unlikely to materialize in the form generally expected by the recipients. In Paris this time around, Hollande seemed to downplay the promise in his remarks, putting the emphasis on the general desirability of providing money and technology to help poor countries cope with climate change and reduce their contribution to the problem.

During the first day in Paris, there was a coordinated effort by the organizers to take the edge off the finance issue. One session highlighted new commitments to the least developed and most vulnerable countries amounting to $248 million. On top of that, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK announced they would provide new funding of $500 million to help developing countries reduce emissions in innovative ways. The general message seemed to be that even if the less developed countries get less than they hoped for, at least their needs are not being ignored.

If all goes to script—and there is nothing to suggest it will not—the Paris agreement that emerges next week will contain parts that have legal force and parts that do not, to meet the Obama Administration’s need for an accord that does not require Senate ratification. The agreement will make reference to the combined climate pledges and provide review procedures that will be more or less stringent. There will be a complicated array of provisions having to do with rather important matters including finance, deforestation, emissions trading, and carbon offsets.

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It will be interesting to see if some mention is made in the agreement of carbon pricing or even carbon taxation. At all previous meetings the OPEC countries saw to it that there would be no talk of penalties on fossil fuels. But Hollande specifically referred to the desirability of putting a global price on carbon, which can mean either carbon trading or carbon taxation. The Climate Action Network is talking of a system in which proceeds of a carbon tax could be used to help developing countries with adaptation, resilience and carbon cutting.

At the end of the day Monday, the leaders of Canada, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany and Mexico joined Hollande in issuing a call for carbon pricing as a crucial element in any effective future climate policy. If the words “carbon price” somehow get into the agreement’s final text, this in itself will be an important step forward.

A science and technology journalist with 40 years' experience. Currently a history adjunct in the CUNY system and at work on a book about climate diplomacy.