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    December 18, 2015 | 3:39 PM

    Seeing History Unfold: On the Ground at COP 21

    This week the announcement of a new global climate agreement at the UN’s COP 21 conference seized the headlines – and for good reason. But what actually goes into making an agreement this big happen and what is it like to be there?

    Our climate policy associate, Ethan Spaner, was on the ground with the civil society bloc in Paris, tracking negotiations and providing advice to delegates as discussions heated up. Below is his account of a frantic final 48 hours culminating in the most important climate deal the world has ever seen.

    Thursday, December 10

    Officially one day to go.

    Yesterday, we received a new draft Paris Agreement. It’s not very good, for a number of reasons. Criteria for reviewing commitments are vague. Long-term goal options don’t send the clear signal we need. Long story short: an ambitious deal is possible, but there’s still a lot of work to do to get there.

    At the meeting of ministers last night, COP President and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius laid down the rules for how negotiations would proceed. Two groups were formed, one dedicated to addressing the contentious key issues of differentiation, ambition, and finance, and one focusing on remaining issues, such as loss and damage measures.

    And then statements were made. And more statements and more statements.

    This morning we heard that negotiations went on until 5:00 AM, and reports were that very little happened.

    So we came back to the venue at Le Bourget and waited for a new text, scheduled for

    3:00 PM.

    3:00 became 5:00.

    5:00 became 7:00.

    Now it’s 9:00 PM, and the committee is finally beginning to settle into the plenary. Another new text. The expectation is that negotiations will go through the night again, with Fabius chairing a group focused on achieving compromise. Particular sticking points will be resolved in corners of the room, among small, facilitated huddles. All night, again.

    Everyone is exhausted. About half of the participants, including myself, seem to have caught a cold. It feels like we’re thinking in circles.

    Welcome to the final days of a COP.

    Saturday, December 12, 10:30 AM CET

    Negotiations were supposed to end yesterday.

    The mood is tense and frustrated right now. After countries spent all of Friday in negotiations, the COP presidency announced that the final text would be ready at 9 AM Saturday.

    Right now it’s 10:30 AM and still no text. The release keeps getting delayed.

    Many things happened overnight. US Secretary of State John Kerry threatened to walk out of the room last night over provisions requiring financial commitments. This is a red line for the US, as it would trigger the need for the US Senate to ratify the agreement, and that is an impossible task.

    Ministers and their delegations have now spent the last three nights on sleep rotations to hammer out the final details. The Thursday text contained a decent long-term goal and five-year cycles where countries review their progress and make new commitments to cutting emissions. But those reviews don’t start early enough and don’t require updates to current commitments, which we know won’t keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 degrees.

    The most frustrating part is that there’s nothing we as NGOs can do right now other than send proposals through to delegates hoping for consideration. And wait.

    As far as we know, the divisions between developed and developing countries remain very deep, and we don’t know how this will be reflected in the text. So we’re sitting and waiting, nervous and hopeful.

    December 12, 21:00 CET

    It’s over. The Paris Agreement is adopted and we’ve got the official text in our hands. Right now, statement after statement of (mostly) support is being presented by nations. It’s been an emotional roller coaster since the morning.

    A quick recap. First was the presentation of the text. I was able to grab a ticket to the plenary hall, so that I could sit inside and watch history be made. We took our seats as delegations slowly filtered in, one by one, until all of a sudden something broke the tension.

    If you followed the media coverage of COP 21, you probably heard about the “High Ambition Coalition,” a group of developed and developing countries, conceived by Minister Tony deBrum from the Marshall Islands to – just as the name suggests – raise hopes work for a more ambitious agreement. And somehow they did, with tremendous credit due to deBrum’s brilliant diplomacy in breaking down deeply entrenched decades-long divisions.

    So when Minister deBrum strode into the plenary, head held high and trailed by a group of about 50 other ministers, all wearing a coconut husk ribbon symbolizing the Marshall Islands, everyone in the crowd jumped to their feet in applause. These were the men and women who made this agreement happen, who led the way and demanded more. Another standing ovation came for French Foreign Minister and COP President Laurent Fabius, whose leadership guided the negotiations to this moment.

    But even then nothing was guaranteed. The French pulled out all the stops, inviting President Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon onto the stage to encourage nations to adopt the text. Then, while delegations broke to review the text, NGOs gathered in a separate room to review it too. This was the moment of truth.

    The most glaring change for me was the long-term goal. Previous attempts to define the goal as “greenhouse gas neutrality” fell apart when the new draft eliminated a key paragraph. But it was obvious that work hadn’t stopped there.

    The new long-term goal read as follows:

    “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”

    What we were reading, hidden in the language of diplomat-ese, was a subtle strategic masterstroke. First, the language about balance had already been approved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) reports, so no one should object or block it.

    Then look at the underlined section: if you combine the IPCC language with the best-available science, you can pinpoint when emissions must reach net zero. For 1.5 degrees, that’s between 2060 and 2080. For 2 degrees, it’s between 2080 and 2090. In a roundabout way, the drafters were able to define the goal without explicitly saying so. Absolutely brilliant.

    Back in the hall, we hear that the adoption plenary that was supposed to start at 3:45 PM was delayed until 5:30. Plenary delays are never a good thing. They mean something has gone wrong.

    The story was that the US had noticed a clerical error. One that was very much a problem. Article 4.4 contained a “shall” where it was supposed to say “should.” The US can’t adopt a legally binding provision on this provision (“shall”) without requiring Senate approval. But opening that word up for revision meant opening up other matters. Then African nations argued that more sections should be revisited. This was all happening behind the scenes but word quickly spread. The Paris Agreement was in danger.

    If you want to know what tension looks like, stand in a room full of people who’ve spent decades working on a deal quite literally to save the world, only to see it one word from falling apart at the last possible moment.

    Not being part of the plenary discussions, I can’t tell you exactly what happened in those huddles. What I can tell you is that at nearly 7:30 PM, a visibly shaken Laurent Fabius rushed back out onto the stage. Order had been restored. He quickly went through the motions, including the announcement of the clerical change from “shall” to “should” in Article 4.4. And in a flash, the world adopted the Paris Agreement.

    It’s still sinking in. For the first time, we have a global climate agreement. For the first time, 186 nations have all made commitments to reducing emissions and – critically – we have a system in place to review these commitments and strengthen them in the years ahead. We have a common goal and a way to reach it.

    And that’s not just because of the people who are physically here at Le Bourget. It’s because of the hard work we’ve all done for years. It’s because of the way climate change has captured the public imagination like never before. So in that sense, everyone who’s signed a petition calling for action, attended a rally, or shared a message with their friends has been here these two weeks with us. Thanks to their efforts and what happened here, we can see the end of the road for fossil fuels. And we know how we’ll get there. There’s a lot of work to do, for sure, but the climate movement lives on and marches forward. Together.

    You can be a part of the movement to build on the success of the Paris Agreement in 2016 and beyond. Sign up for our email list and we’ll keep you posted on how you can help us accelerate the shift to a clean energy economy.

    The Climate Reality Project