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The Paris homestretch: Optimism at the COP21 indaba

“If you want to go swiftly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
— African proverb

On Thursday night in Paris, countries were still choosing distance over speed, carefully drawing together the elements of a balanced global climate agreement.

Thursday was a pivotal moment in the negotiations.

It started with bleary-eyed ministers and delegates wandering out into a cold, foggy dawn Thursday, acknowledging that consensus had strengthened in some ways, though it remained fragile in several others.

Building from an effort to focus minds and political will at midnight Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius personally chaired one main ‘indaba’ on the critical issues of differentiation, support and ambition. An indaba is a traditional Zulu gathering of elders that seeks creative, common solutions. First popularized at COP17, they were used to break deadlocks in Durban, opening fundamental compromises that have become the foundation for any momentum seen at COP21.

At the heart of these negotiations is the question of whether there is a sufficiently robust and interlocking system of guarantees that confirms that all countries are on the same trajectory toward a common, low-carbon future. Essentially, that we are together in the same canoe, all paddling in the same direction.

With grand statements last week, leaders from 150 countries certainly suggested it was not only possible but essential to protect future generations. As if conditioned for failure, chronically skeptical voices in the halls today began to suggest that the speeches were only political rhetoric and an agreement would again be elusive.

However, surprising both delegates and observers, Minister Fabius released a largely ‘clean’ text tonight, reflecting the priorities of the parties. Based on the Wednesday all-nighter, careful re-drafting and extensive shuttle diplomacy, the text showed concessions in key areas. Over 24 hours, the French enlisted both those in the rooms at Le Bourget and leaders in national capitals to strategically keep the negotiations on track, ensuring political landing room for a deal. Canada and other countries joined the ‘high ambition coalition’ through the day, adding further momentum.

Most significantly, the new draft text includes references to limiting temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” as well as “pursuing efforts to limit increase to 1.5 degrees.” This recognizes the urgency of the threat passionately expressed by small-island and vulnerable states. The current text also acknowledges that global ‘peaking’ of emissions likely will take some time and proposes that countries reach “emissions neutrality in the second half of the century.” This point may prove to be controversial for some.

The flexibility on the temperature goal allowed developed players to get stronger language on how countries – rich, poor and emerging economies – will file, transparently report and increase their mitigation contributions every five years. Proposed adaptation language is similarly strong. If agreed on, this could deliver unprecedented universal and shared participation in reducing global GHG emissions beyond 2030, placing all the world’s nations in the same buoyant canoe.

On climate financing, detail has been added that suggests “short-term, collective and quantified goals” for contributions from developed countries and developing countries “in a position to do so.” The commitment to $100B in global investments, starting in 2020, will aid the transition to step-changes in poor nations’ energy, transportation and infrastructure systems, further supported by technology transfer and capacity building.

On differentiation, the draft text appears to recognize the different timetables and capacities that developing countries face in managing the compound challenges of economic growth, access to energy and poverty alleviation. Some countries, such as Malaysia, may still want more.

In releasing the draft Thursday evening, Minister Fabius announced that negotiators would again meet through the night in indaba format, stating that more middle ground was needed and cautioning negotiators not to let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

There are many nuances yet to be addressed and these final steps are the most delicate, requiring trust and strength of character from all. The French have built a reservoir of good will but the mantra of the multilateral diplomat bears repeating one more time – “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Outside in the halls, some observer organizations are encouraged, others are pressuring delegations to seek changes, claiming that what’s offered is a already a failure.

Whatever is negotiated here, each national government will have to carry any deal home to its own people. Knowing that all politics is local, some leaders will want to know if the deal is enough; others will ask if it gives up too much. If nations are to do what it takes here in Paris to travel far, we all must be prepared to pull together at home, in the interests of a larger intergenerational goal. That means more than addressing climate change; it means human change, too.

Velma McColl, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, has spent the last 20 years working in politics, communications and public policy. She has advised leaders in government, industry and the non-profit sector and specializes in finding opportunities at the intersection of energy, environment and the economy.