In Paris, the push for a global climate deal goes into overtime

The World
World leaders gather for a group photo at the Nov. 30 opening of the UN's global climate summit in Paris. The conference was supposed to adjourn today but with key parts of the text still to be nailed down, negotiations have been extended into the weekend
World leaders gather for a group photo at the Nov. 30 opening of the UN's global climate summit in Paris. The conference was supposed to adjourn today but with key parts of the text still to be nailed down negotiations have been extended into the weekend.

Ian Langsdon/Reuters

The devil is in the details. It’s an old cliché but never truer than at moments like this: crunch time at the pivotal UN climate change conference in Paris.

For the last two weeks delegates from nearly 200 nations meeting here have been haggling over a new global climate deal on which the future health of our planet and species may well depend.

The talks have been more efficient and less rancorous than many such summits over the past two decades. But by the close of business on what was supposed to be the meeting’s last day, the deal was still not done. That’s because after hundreds of hours of talks and thousands of proposed words, phrases and clauses, there are still devilish details to be agreed upon.

At the most basic level, not a single word of the now 27-page document has been finalized. Drafts of these documents use brackets—“[ ]”—to mark language that’s still in play. There are two sections to this one, and as of Friday evening both of them begin and end with brackets. So in effect, every word is still in play until a final document is voted on.

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But within the big brackets are lots of smaller ones, representing clear areas of disagreement on key points, from how much financial help developed countries should provide poorer countries to help them address the challenges of climate change, and how soon they should start doing it, to how often countries should assess and revise their goals for cutting greenhouse pollution.

Bigger issues within the broader brackets include who should do what to cut those planet-warming emissions under the longstanding principle in these talks of countries’ “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

Even the overarching goal of the whole effort is still in play. But on that point—the bottom line goal—there’s been a big shift the last few days.

Until the beginning of this second week of the summit, it was expected that the goal would be to try to hold the rise in global average temperatures to 2° Celsius above preindustrial levels. That’s what many scientists in the field believe is the outside limit for preventing truly catastrophic climate change.

But many activists and participants here in Paris had been pushing for a lower threshold of 1.5° C, which those scientists say would be would be a much safer level, if still extremely disruptive.

Earlier this week, that 1.5° C target suddenly took hold here, and has worked its way into the current draft in language that, while still soft, is a significant change. The goal is now to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C.”

If that language sticks in the final draft—now promised for tomorrow—it will mark an important victory for the most vulnerable countries. But will also mean a much heavier lift for the global shift away from fossil fuels. We’re already at roughly 1° C above preindustrial levels, so in effect the new target would be twice as hard to achieve—capping additional warming at half a degree C rather than a full degree.

And the target also points to a key irony—what many observers here say is a key flaw—in the text.

Even with a more ambitious target, and commitments for countries to periodically report their emissions and perhaps ratchet up their reduction goals, the text says nothing at all about how the world should meet that target. The details are left entirely up to the individual countries.

And that in turn reflects the scale of the challenge here—arriving at language that almost 200 countries, with as many complex national agendas, can agree on to try to solve maybe the biggest problem the world has ever tried to solve. Climate change will profoundly affect every country on earth, but in ways that no one can yet be completely certain about. But trying to minimize it will also affect every country on earth, and many of those costs are much easier to identify. And it will cost a lot.

So the massive challenge here is to find language that’s vague enough to allow virtually every country in the world to sign on without feeling they sacrificed something that’s key to their national interest, but specific enough to actually make a real difference.

It seems an impossible task, and the fact that anything might actually get done here is kind of amazing. But despite blowing past the deadline into an overtime round, there’s a strong feeling here that this time, after two decades of false starts and glacial progress, something actually will get done.