QCOSTARICA – Headed by Costa Rica’s own Christiana Figueres, there is optimism at the UN climate talks in Paris that a deal can be done, despitethat in the second week there are still significant areas of disagreement.
The negotiating text has been pared back to just over 20 pages – a much better position than at the equivalent point at the Copenhagen talks in 2009. Here are some of the key individuals who will decide the outcome of the talks.
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been involved in the long-running UN climate change talks since 1995, first as part of the Costa Rican delegation involved in crafting the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, and since 2010 as the UN’s climate change chief. Having experienced at first hand the travails of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, which ended in a deal but was derided for the scenes of chaos and vicious recriminations that marked its conclusion, she has been determined to learn from those mistakes.
Her background – she comes from a well-connected political family in Costa Rica, where her father served as president three times and was credited with leading his country to stable democracy – has assisted her in gaining the confidence of developing countries, while liaising with the rich nations which have often dominated past talks. Her exhaustive knowledge of the cumbersome UN negotiating process has also proved invaluable, helping her to steer the development of the proposed new agreement through a series of lead-up meetings.
The Paris conference is a make-or-break moment for the UN climate negotiations, which began in 1992. Current commitments on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, declared by all the world’s major economies at Copenhagen, will run out in 2020, and this conference is aimed at putting plans in place for the next decade. This will be crucial, if the world is to stay within the threshold of a 2C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, regarded by scientists as the limit of safety beyond which the effects of extreme weather are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. If Paris fails, the world will be left without an agreement on collective action to solve this global problem.
Direct in manner, but with a sense of humour and moments of fire, Figueres has needed every ounce of energy and dynamism to bring these talks to their final stages. These will be her last UN negotiations: next year, she will step down from her role, leaving, she hopes, a lasting legacy.
The tall thin figure of Todd Stern has been a fixture at UN climate negotiations for nearly 20 years, since he was asked to head the White House preparations for the Kyoto protocol in 1997.
The State Department negotiator’s path through both worlds – the White House and the international climate negotiations – is closely linked to that of John Podesta, the powerful Democratic strategist who brought Stern into Bill Clinton’s White House.
When George Bush was president, Stern joined a law firm and became a fellow at the Centre for American Progress, the thinktank founded by Podesta. In 2007, the two men teamed up for a report arguing the next US president should make a low carbon economy a top priority.
Hillary Clinton brought Stern back into the administration in 2009 after she became secretary of state.
Within the frequently histrionic world of climate negotiators, Stern, 64, a Harvard-educated lawyer and father of three sons, is seen as cautious and low-key, never flashy.
He chooses his words with a lawyer’s precision, and is unapologetic about his devotion to the minutest detail of the negotiations, including commas.
But over the past six years, he has in his quiet and relentless way carried out a revolution in the way the negotiations have approached climate change.
His first task was killing off the Kyoto protocol, a legally binding treaty which put the onus for fighting climate change almost entirely on rich countries such as the US, Europe and Japan.
In tandem, Stern tried to end the rivalry between the two big climate polluters – the US and China. Stern made his first approach when he accompanied Clinton to China on her first visit as secretary of state. But the real movement came in 2013 after John Kerry became secretary of state.
The deal, announced at a summit in Beijing in November last year, was widely seen as a breakthrough for the talks – and for Stern’s designs to sweep away the last relics of Kyoto.
In its place, Stern made headway with the idea that all countries had to engage in fighting climate change, although developing economies would not be required to cut emissions until a later date.
Instead of the legal treaty of Kyoto, he argued the only way to fight climate change was on a volunteer basis, with each country setting its own targets for emissions reductions and other actions. Stern insisted peer pressure would eventually compel countries to deepen their cuts and so achieve the goal of limiting warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels.
François Hollande, president of France, has been much in evidence for his country’s hosting of these crucial talks. Welcoming world leaders on the opening day, he made clear his determination to strike a deal: “Never have the stakes been so high, because this is about the future of the planet, the future of life.”
Laurent Fabius, foreign minister and president of COP 21, has taken charge of the talks and the lead-up to them. In frequent meetings with counterparts in other countries throughout the year, on a variety of subjects, he has never failed to squeeze in the issue of climate change, and press governments to come forward with plans to reduce emissions and, in the case of developed countries, finance for poor nations.
His has been the key role, finding out from other governments their targets and concerns, forming a bridge between nations that have historically had differences, and liaising closely with the UN to understand how the unwieldy process can be managed.
The attacks on Paris, in which 130 people died and scores more were badly injured, marked a watershed. Fabius’s concerns switched immediately to the safety of the French people, and combating Isis, calling on other nations to act in concert. There was brief doubt as to whether the summit would go ahead. He made the decision to stop the planned march by civil society groups, because of security concerns. When the talks end, his role will revert to fighting terrorism as a key international priority.
Fabius is joined by Ségolène Royal, minister of ecology, sustainable development and energy. She has championed the concerns of the poor nations at these negotiations, insisting repeatedly that the rich world must assist them in reducing emissions and coping with the effects of climate change. Economic development has sometimes been seen as running counter to environmental well-being. She has been determined to reconcile the two, arguing that no development can be durable if it damages the environment.
On a personal level, relations between Hollande, Fabius and Royal have sometimes been strained. Hollande and Royal have four children together, parting in 2007 after Hollande began a relationship with Valérie Trierweiler. Relations between Fabius and Royal have also been said to be fractious at times. Fabius ran against Royal for the presidential nomination in 2007. She was defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy, with whose wife, Carla Bruni, Fabius was said to have had an affair.
In the negotiation rooms at the talks, the key figure for the French is Laurence Tubiana. She has experience in international negotiations, advised former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, and has served as director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.
Two contrasting personalities lead China’s delegation at the climate talks. Su Wei is known for being one of the toughest negotiators around, described by one delegate as China’s “attack dog”. Minister Xie Zhenhua tends to strike a more flexible pose, often smiling and exchanging jokes with reporters and aides, and willing to consider compromises. “Good cop, bad cop,” is how one observer puts it.
China’s position at these talks has changed markedly. Blamed for helping to cause the collapse of negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, the country nevertheless signed a declaration there enshrining its first commitments on curbing emissions under the UN. In Durban, at a further round of talks in 2011, the proposal on the table was for a pathway to a new global agreement to kick in from 2020, when the Copenhagen commitments expire.
That agreement is now the subject of the crunch conference in Paris. But if China had been allowed its way, Paris would never have happened.
The talks at Durban carried on for 36 hours beyond their deadline, with non-stop marathon negotiating sessions. The EU, which proposed the 2015 agreement, had assembled a broad but fragile coalition of developed and developing countries. In the final hours, only two held out: China and India.
China’s situation at the talks is complicated by political realities in Beijing. The country’s environment ministry pushes for domestic action on pollution, and the foreign ministry wants China to be seen as a constructive player on the international stage, but the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) traditionally takes a more hardline view at the UN.
Its Durban stance was a result of that. Since then, however, after China finally backed down and agreed the timetable for Paris, the country has shown more public willingness to negotiate on climate change. Previously, for instance, China refused to set a date for when its emissions would peak. Late last year, President Xi Jinping stood with President Obama of the US to announce a peaking year, 2030, which is now its offering at the Paris talks. China has also contributed billions to the Green Climate Fund, for poorer developing countries.
Having agreed a peaking year, and contributed to finance, China’s aim is now to hold developed countries to what it perceives as their obligations. Whether that involves blocking a deal judged too weak, or not in the Chinese national interest, will depend on Xie and Su, and their instructions from Beijing.
India has taken one of the hardest public lines in the first week of these talks, and in the lead-up to them. The country was notably late in submitting its national plan on curbing emissions, known as an INDC – intended nationally determined contribution – which focused on renewable energy.
Narendra Modi, leader of the world’s biggest democracy, has publicly argued that it would be “morally wrong” to let rich countries off the hook for their historical emissions. This line has been continued by India’s senior environment official, Susheel Kumar, of the ministry of environment, at the talks.
India’s negotiators have opposed phrasing in the text that would include developing countries that are “in a position to do so” among those making voluntary contributions to climate finance, and the inclusion of a 1.5C temperature limit which many of the poorest nations want.
But its hard line has been counterbalanced by a strong focus on technology and energy. On the first day, India announced an alliance of 120 countries to pursue solar power, and said it would focus on other renewables as a way of reducing its future reliance on coal. These are potentially important achievements that could change the shape of emissions growth across the region.
With its huge population and rapidly developing economy, India under Modi is proud of its role on the world stage, and will be pivotal at the talks. Minister Prakash Javadekar, who will lead for the second week, is said to have a friendly demeanour in meetings, and is more inclined to want to present India as a supporter of international processes than some of the “old guard” in the delegation. But if the government wants to be seen as a beacon for other developing nations, in the model of China, it will also have to show it is not harming the least developed countries by refusing to agree measures that would help them.
Taking over as European commissioner for climate and energy just over a year ago, Miguel Arias Cañete had a full portfolio: plans for an unprecedented “energy union” across the EU; reinvigorating Europe’s energy industry amid the recession and Euro crises; and the COP 21. So far, he has pressed forward with all three.
A genial man, with a background as a conservative politician, the Spaniard gives every appearance of enjoying his role, and his relationships with Latin America are undoubtedly helpful. Latin America will play a key role, as some of those nations – notably Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua – have sought to obstruct agreement in the past, while others are more willing to compromise. Cañete seems to have ridden out early controversies and objections to his role from campaigners, who were angered by his previous large shareholdings in oil companies, now sold.
But his affable manner should not fool his counterparts into thinking the EU will be a pushover – he has stated firmly that Europe will not accept a weak deal. “There is no plan B if Paris should fail,” he told the Guardian earlier this year, and he has repeated his determination since.