Climate negotiators will likely come up with a landmark deal to curb carbon emissions. But it will be just a start — the end of the beginning.

A visitor at the Paris climate talks, 1 December 2015 (EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo)
A visitor at the Paris climate talks, 1 December 2015 (EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo)

By Jeremy Lovell

Climate negotiators nearing the middle of two weeks of crunch talks in Paris will, barring a catastrophe of global proportions, come up with a deal to curb carbon emissions that for the first time will cover at least the major developing nations as well as the developed ones.

After six years of international diplomacy, too much political capital has been invested for there to be the public humiliation of world leaders following the calamitous collapse of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 and the recriminations that ensued.

On top of that, French President François Hollande has ventured much his dwindling domestic political capital on striking a climate deal that could bookmark his place in it.

While many of the leaders present in Copenhagen have since been swept aside, others, including U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, remain in office and do not want a painful reminder of events getting out of hand.

Gone are the lofty ambitions for a carbon and climate deal binding the world’s two biggest emitters — the United States and China — together with the developed nations that signed the Kyoto Protocol as well as major emerging economies such as India.

Up until a few weeks before the Copenhagen meeting, the United Nations was gleefully contemplating its “Seal the Deal” campaign — I still have a hat emblazoned with the green slogan to prove it — despite rising voices urging a quick phone call to reality.

Broad but shallow

In the intervening years, that narrow but deep approach has been consigned to gathering dust on the bookshelves of history.

It has been replaced by the so-called broad but shallow approach in which each willing nation — few of which have not endured natural or environmental disasters of some sort — have drawn up largely voluntary national plans to curb their emissions in either absolute or relative terms.

This bottom-up approach is seen as less combative internationally and more salable domestically. This, even though it dodges most of the more intractable problems such as historical responsibility, so-called embedded carbon (that which is incorporated in goods that are imported but were formerly made at home) and associated carbon leakage of whole industries relocating with massive economic costs.

It skates over sustainability and human rights, who does the counting, who checks the figures and, of course, sovereignty.

In theory, rolling the 170 or so national plans so far submitted into one formal, legal, text should be fairly straightforward, involving little more than dotting a few “i’s” and crossing a few “t’s” — and greasing a few national palms with funds to reduce emissions and adapt to the consequences of past and future excesses.

But the devil will be in the detail — what little there will be to see of it, that is.

End of the beginning

A deal in Paris will be hailed both as a “victory for humanity” and a “nail in its coffin,” depending on whether you are selling or buying. The UN calculates that the plans submitted so far fall well short of limiting warming to the 2 degrees Celsius target selected by most as affording some degree of hope for the future.

At best Paris will likely produce a work in progress, to be built upon over time, hopefully at increasing speed.

Will it be enough? Almost certainly not! Will it be better than nothing at all? On balance, probably yes, just!

As Winston Churchill once memorably said of another conflict in another time: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Time will tell.


jlovellJeremy Lovell was a correspondent for Reuters for more than 23 years in Europe, Asia and Africa. He covered Dutch, Belgian, British and South African elections, the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis, Belgian pedophile murders, NATO going to war for the first time, Zimbabwean farm invasions and climate change, energy and the environment.

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Climate talks: end of the beginning

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