Hopes rise as UN adopts draft agreement on climate change

Visitors look at exhibits at the US stand at COP 21, the United Nations conference on climate change, at Le Bourget on 3 December 2015.

Visitors look at exhibits at the US stand at COP 21, the United Nations conference on climate change, at Le Bourget on 3 December 2015. More than 150 world leaders are meeting under heightened security, for the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP21/CMP11) from 30 November to 11 December. AFP/Getty Images/Patrick Kovarik

By David Williams and Mariƫtte Le Roux | AFP

LE BOURGET, France, 5 December 2015

Negotiators from 195 nations delivered a blueprint Saturday for a pact to save mankind from disastrous global warming, raising hopes that decades of arguments will finally end with a historic agreement in Paris.

The planned deal would aim to break the world’s dependence on fossil fuels for energy, slashing the greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil, coal and gas that are causing temperatures to rise dangerously.

Tortuous UN negotiations dating back to the early 1990s have failed to forge unity between rich and poor nations, and the Paris talks are being described as the “last, best chance” to save mankind.

They began on Monday with a record-breaking gathering of 150 world leaders who sought to energise the process, and the next crucial phase ended Saturday with the adoption of a draft text of an agreement.

Negotiators finalised the draft following an often tense week of talks at a conference centre in Le Bourget on the northern outskirts of Paris.

And while many extremely contentious points still have to be resolved by ministers during a scheduled five days of talks starting Monday, delegates said they felt the foundations had been laid for success.

“We are very happy to have this progress. The political will is there from all parties,” China’s chief climate envoy, Su Wei, told reporters.

After the draft was adopted to loud applause, South African negotiator Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko drew on her nation’s revered democracy icon in a bid to inspire others.

“In the words of Nelson Mandela, it always seems impossible until it is done,” she said.

Exciting time in history

More than 50 personalities committed to fighting climate change, from US actor Sean Penn to Chinese internet tycoon Jack Ma, also gathered at the conference Saturday to help build momentum.

“Perhaps this is the most exciting time in human history,” Penn told a special event at the conference.

“Those illusions of having too many difficult choices have always created chaos. Now we live in a time where there are no choices. We have certainty.”

Scientists warn our planet will become increasingly hostile for mankind as it warms, with rising sea levels that will consume islands and populated coastal areas, as well as catastrophic storms and severe droughts.

Small island nations most vulnerable to rising sea levels and stronger storms, which are often railroaded by the powerful in the UN talks, also expressed cautious optimism about the draft agreement.

“We would have wished to be further along than we are at this point, but the text being forwarded so far reflects our key priorities,” said Thoriq Ibrahim from the Maldives and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States.

No guarantees

But no-one in Le Bourget is under the illusion that a 11 December deal is guaranteed.

There are vivid memories of the spectacular failure at the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, the last time the world tried to create a global warming pact.

“At this point in Copenhagen we were dealing with a 300-page text and a pervasive sense of despair. In Paris we’re down to a slim 21 pages and the atmosphere remains constructive,” Greenpeace climate expert Martin Kaiser said.

“But that doesn’t guarantee a decent deal. Right now the oil-producing nations and the fossil fuel industry will be plotting how to crash these talks.”

One of the keys to success in Paris is the submission by most countries of voluntary plans to curb their emissions from 2020, when the pact would come into force.

Scientists say these pledges, if fulfilled, would still fall far short of what is needed to cap warming at 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) below pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

Also crucial to the Paris accord, environment campaigners and many delegates say, will be agreement on a review every five years at which nations’ commitments may be strengthened.

But there are major points of dispute on this issue, such as when the stocktakes would happen and if they should actually seek to strengthen countries’ commitments or just review them.

There is also still no agreement on other fundamental issues such as what temperature limit to aim for. A majority of nations, mostly the smaller ones, want to aim for 1.5 degrees C.

But the United States, China, India and some of the other biggest polluting nations want to enshrine 2 degrees C as the goal, which would allow them to emit more gases for longer.

Money has long been one of the biggest sticking points in the UN negotiations, and it remains so in Paris.

Poorer countries are demanding finance to pay for the costly shift to renewable technologies, as well as to cope with the impact of climate change.

At stake is hundreds of billions of dollars that would need to start flowing from 2020. But developing nations are complaining that rich countries are refusing to honour previous commitments to mobilise the cash.

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