Thursday, December 17, 2015

How a 'typo' nearly derailed the Paris climate deal // Good News and Climate Change - Tom Engelhardt

A debate over the words ‘should’ or ‘shall’ in the final draft was passed off as an undetected error thanks to some timely French diplomacy

Could the fate of the world hang on a single word? Could the whole Paris climate agreement have been scuppered at the very last minute? History will record a diplomatic triumph but it may skate over events that took place in the dying moments when all countries believed they had a deal. Here’s what happened at the fortnight-long climate negotiations in Paris. 

Following a third all-night negotiating session, all countries on Saturday morninghad been forced to compromise their positions by the French presidency. The US, China and India, as the three biggest polluters, had all accepted an ambitious target of limiting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels ; the US and Europe had accepted some responsibility for damage done by climate change; developing countries had agreed to a dilution of the original climate convention, and had given way on financing, liability and the dates when there would have to be revisions.

But when, at 1.30pm local time, the French presidency presented its final “take it or leave it” Paris agreement text , adoption of the text should have been a formality. It soon became clear that something had gone very wrong in the text. Rumours swirled, and it was later confirmed by US secretary of state, John Kerry, that the US had objected to Article 4.4 on page 21 of the 31-page final agreement. US government lawyers had found, it was said to their horror, that they had unwittingly approved a vital word which could make the difference between rich countries being legally obliged to cut emissions rather than just having to try to: “shall” rather than “should”.

This article requires developed countries to undertake economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets but developing countries to only “continue to enhance” their mitigation efforts. In the draft that was presented for adoption there were two critical words - “shall” and “should”. The expression “shall” applied to the developed countries’ obligation and the word “should” applied to the developing countries’ obligation.

There was a crisis. According to some, it had always been intended that both rich and poor countries should have the same obligation, namely “should”, not “shall”. This was of huge importance to the US especially which, it said, would have had difficulty signing up to any legally binding obligation to implement its reduction target.

But others claimed that the US was objecting unfairly at the last possible moment to the developing countries’ most important “red line” . The whole summit, indeed, had turned on the argument that rich countries, which had admitted causing climate change, should take the lead cutting emissions. The principle was enshrined in the overarching, legally binding UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and developing countries had throughout the summit insisted it be reflected in every part of the Paris text. It was their red line. 

What we do know is that the US delegation then approached the French presidency, claiming a mistake had been made. It seems that the presidency advised them to object from the floor of the plenary if they wanted a change in the wording, but warned that this would re-open the whole meeting to other countries’ objections and possibly take two or more days to resolve, if at all. The US immediately understood that if it did so, it would not only be blamed for holding up the meeting , but indeed for jeopardising the whole agreement because many other countries would then object to bits of the agreement that they did not like.

The G77 and other developing countries were then consulted about the dilemma, and told the presidency that this was a red line that they could not cross either because it diluted the whole UN climate convention. [In a nutshell, they said “shall should not become should. Should shall become should, all should think again”.]

At the very last minute, the French came up with a diplomatic solution. It was agreed that there had been a “typographical error” which was put down to an anonymous sleep-deprived negotiating team transferring lines from one draft text to another. The embarrassed French presidency, it seems, agreed that the amendment change of “shall” to “should” could be dealt with as a “technical error”.

Neither the French presidency, the US government, or UN would comment this week. America’s top climate negotiator, Todd Stern, described it as “very interesting mystery.” But some observers have seen it as the US managing to avoid taking action on climate and getting its own way over the heads of the poor.

Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, the DR of Congo’s lead envoy, told ClimateHome, a news site which closely follows the UN negotiation: “It’s a typo we will refer to many times because frankly speaking, nobody’s buying that.” Professor Gurdial Singh Nijar, the Malaysian spokesman for the Like Minded Developing Countries (Lmdc) group, which includes India, China and Indonesia,told leading southern NGO Third World Network that he was present throughout the crisis and saw what happened after the final text was shown to them by the French.

We [the LMDC] found the text a little convoluted, but we felt we could consider it. We agreed with it and so did the Group of 77 and China. We felt there was balance and our red lines were somewhat preserved. Then when we went to the hall, we were shocked to find that the US was objecting to Article 4.4. They came up with this incredulous thing that it was a mistake. The EU approached us and said that there is a problem and asked us if we could change the ‘shall’ to ‘should’. When we asked them why, they responded that the Americans had told them that if the word ‘shall’ was introduced, the Congress would not pass it. We said that we have done so many things to get the US on board and they were diluting everything. In this case they were diluting something which was our super-red line.

Just before 7.30pm, the shall/should fiasco was passed off as undetected error in the text, and the meeting moved to adopt the Paris agreement. “I see the room, I see the reaction is positive, I hear no objection. The Paris climate accord is adopted,” declared the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, adding: “It’s a small gavel but I think it can do a great job.”
Was it a stitch-up? America’s great escape? Or a genuine error? Either way, the world had a historic, universal climate change deal.

Good News and Climate Change - Tom Engelhardt 
Excuse me if I take a flier today and write an introduction on the good news about climate change. Yep, the good news. It would, of course, be easy enough to do the opposite. When it comes to climate change, gloomy is a cinch. Just about any piece on the subject is likely to depress the hell out of you. Did you know -- as I learned only recently from a New York Times article -- that sea levels rose at a rate of 1.7 millimeters annually during the previous century, but from 1993 on, that rate has nearly doubled to 3.2 millimeters? Later this century, scientists estimate that it could be "16 millimeters a year, or about six-tenths of an inch" -- at least three feet by century's end and possibly worse, depending on what's melting and how fast. If you're a coastal dweller as I am (the eastern U.S.), that should give you pause, and if you live in a coastal area of China, you should be getting nervous. But I did say good news, didn't I, and it is the weekend that 195 countries reached a climate agreement in Paris, isn't it? So here goes.

Let's start with the divestment movement. In Paris recently, the heroic 350.organnounced a startling figure. More than 500 institutions representing $3.4 trillion in assets have agreed to get rid of all or part of the fossil fuel investments in their portfolios. That represents a big leap forward for divestment. And this is just one aspect of a growing global climate change movement that wants to point us toward the exit when it comes to the age of carbon and is proving that it can't be ignored. And speaking of carbon emissions, here's a little news flash from the atmospheric front lines: it's just faintly possible that those emissions are peaking ahead of schedule. Despite a modest global economic recovery, for the last couple of years greenhouse gas emissions have flat-lined and they may even fall by a modest 0.6% in 2015. Don't dance a jig yet. This may not even be the "peak emissions" moment, but if not, it could be coming more quickly than expected.

On a planet getting hotter all the time, this isn't exactly nirvana-style news, but add this in: it had been hoped that somehow the negotiating nations of the world gathered in Paris these last two weeks might agree to the goal of keeping the prospective rise in temperature on planet Earth to 2 degrees Celsius. As it happens, climate scientists have increasingly been warning that even that number could result in devastating environmental disruptions. To the surprise of all, the aspirationalnumber now mentioned in the Paris agreement is 1.5 degrees Celsius. (Humanity has already fossil-fueled the temperature upward by about a degree since the industrial revolution began.) Of course, agreeing on such a figure is one thing. Coming anywhere near achieving it is another.

Still, good news and climate change are not normally associated, so let's give a tiny cheer for these glimpses of upbeat news this week, as well as for the agreement just reached, and then consider what's positive in the long-term outlook for all of us. There, too, as TomDispatch's invaluable energy expert Michael Klare suggests in "A New World Beckons," there's a green glow on the horizon amid the gloom when it comes to renewable energy sources. So don't pop that champagne cork yet, but don't write us off yet either!


see also
Nitin Sethi: The last set of stories trying to sum up what transpired and what are the results of the Paris agreement.