With the Close of the Climate Talks, Has Laurent Fabius Earned His Champagne?

Optimism reigns as world leaders gavel a landmark climate deal at COP21.
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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (left) with French President François Hollande and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (Photo: Frederic Legrand/Shutterstock)

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (left) with French President François Hollande and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (Photo: Frederic Legrand/Shutterstock)

An unprecedented deal to combat climate change was approved in Paris Saturday night to standing ovations in Le Bourget, sending a powerful signal to the international community: For the first time in decades, the world has a common vision—an agreement between almost 200 countries—for cutting back on carbon emissions and staving off the worst effects of climate change.

The final text includes a sweeping plan to eliminate new man-made emissions by the century's end, as well as measures to limit the increase in the average global temperature to "well below" two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, while "pursuing efforts" to limit temperatures to 1.5 degrees. Other highlights include a system for encouraging countries to cap their greenhouse gas emissions on a voluntary basis, as well as billions of dollars to help developing countries transition to a greener economy.

"When you add it all up, it heralds the end of the fossil-fuel age."

It's been hailed as the decisive moment when we put an end, at last, to a culture dependent on fossil fuels, and the details are largely convincing.

First, there's the aforementioned language around "pursuing efforts" to limit temperatures to 1.5 degrees, a much stronger target than was previously thought politically possible, alongside the promise of net-zero manmade carbon emissions by the end of the century. A second element strengthening the transition to a green-energy economy is a section in the agreement about creating financial incentives "consistent with a pathway toward low greenhouse-gas emissions and climate-resilient development." This legalese signals a shift in investments away from fossil fuels toward a host of green-energy, city-planning, and transportation projects.

"Think of this as a vision statement," says Steve Herz, the Sierra Club's senior attorney for the International Climate Program. "When you add it all up, it heralds the end of the fossil-fuel age."

Then there are the timetables for review, which are key to ratcheting up climate pledges between now and 2030 so that the world actually has a chance of meeting its two-degree Celsius goal—something we’re currently not (at all) on track to do. Nations return to the table in 2018, the first year when the convention says countries must strengthen the national targets they offered this year. "To meet the ambitious long-term goals established in Paris, we must seize each of these opportunities," says Lou Leonard of the World Wildlife Fund.

Another achievement is a section in the agreement on finance, which deepens the pot of money that will help countries on mitigation and adaptation projects; the agreement stipulates that, while developed countries will continue to provide funds, richer developing countries are also "encouraged" to contribute. That means countries like Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf oil states can also be expected to put in money—on a voluntary basis. And the language here is stronger than in previous drafts; in United Nations semantics, “encouraged” to contribute is a lot stronger than earlier language saying that countries "may" contribute.

Last, there's the stipulation that developed countries should "lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources," a call to the private sector to make deeper low-carbon and carbon-resilient investments. "That's critical," says Herz of the provisions around finance, "because everyone understands there's not enough government money to solve the problem. You really need to get private sector investors aligned with our objectives here."

One place where the agreement is thought to be lacking is in its accommodation of certain vulnerable communities. A number of civil-society groups were sorely disappointed this week when language regarding women's empowerment, human rights, and protections for indigenous peoples was moved from the operational text to the preamble, where it will not carry the force of law.

In a statement reacting to the Paris agreement, Kate Lappin of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development lamented that the deal does not deliver climate justice: "Justice requires accountability, responsibility, remedies and action by the perpetrators. Polluters got another unwarranted good-behavior bond and more opportunities to profit from climate change.”

Yet the inclusion of language around women's empowerment and human rights in the text at all is nonetheless a step forward for advocates, and as APWLD's Camille Risler acknowledged earlier, many members of civil society are pleased the language made it even that far.

Then there's the fact that "climate justice" is even cited. It's mentioned only in the preamble, which notes, rather weakly, that the concept has "importance for some." But, as Leonard says, "that's still the first time this has ever been included, and a victory for people who've mobilized" around the term.

The jovial tone was set earlier on Saturday, when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius unveiled the final draft text at the conference center in Le Bourget, dubbing it "a historic turning point" and calling on his fellow negotiators, who've been holed up in the conference center for the last two weeks hammering out the details of deal, to take decisive action. French President François Hollande added gravity to the ceremony simply by being there.

Perhaps it doesn't go without saying that it's highly unusual for a president, particularly the president of a major world power, to attend the unveiling of a mere draft climate agreement. So I'll say it: Hollande's presence in Le Bourget served only to heighten the stakes ahead of Saturday night's final plenary. The French have taken tremendous care in wining and dining top negotiators and agonizing over everything at the conference center, from the curve of the tables to the cast of the lighting—this was their moment to cash in on that. And so they did: The momentum of the morning exerted strong pressure on the ministers to sign.

Further intensifying that pressure were the climate protests all across Paris on Saturday, the most visually arresting of which took place at the base of the Arc de Triomphe. There, demonstrators rolled out a long swath of red fabric along the Champs Elysées—a symbol of critical “red-lines” in the agreement—and arrayed the avenue with flowers to honor the victims of climate change.

Flowers in the street take on a special meaning here in Paris, where the specter of terror attacks still looms, and citizens continue to place flowers and candles on the street in memory of the 130 people who were killed on November 13. The attacks added emotional and political pressure to sign a deal. As World Resources Institute's Jennifer Morgan, an expert in climate change negotiations, told the New York Times' Coral Davenport recently: “I think if a country were to go up against France right now, it would be looked at so badly in the broader global context."

Apparently, everyone got that memo.

The combined effect of this rosy momentum was palpable by midday Saturday, when Twitter lit up with photos of demonstrations around the city, and with inspirational quotes from leaders speaking at the plenary of the conference. One reporter told me the morning gave him "goosebumps." If Bill McKibben is right when he says the real job of activists is to "change the zeitgeist," they may have already succeeded.

Not that he'd ever admit it. No sooner had the climate accord been gaveled than Jamie Henn, 350.org co-founder and McKibben’s right hand, tweeted: "COP21 is wrap. Let's get back to work." And Bernie Sanders, who has emerged as the environmentalist favorite of the 2016 presidential campaign, didn't even wait until the gavel dropped to announce that the deal “goes nowhere near far enough” to commit nations to lower planet-warming carbon emissions.

Still, most people on-site at Le Bourget were already celebrating; some delegations were practically shouting with joy. Edna Molewa, the minister of environmental affairs from South Africa, even began quoting Nelson Mandela in her official response during the plenary: "After climbing a great hill one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.... I dare not linger." As early as this morning, some negotiators were already getting on airplanes, convinced the deal was effectually finished. And Christiana Figueres, the U.N.'s top climate official, seems to think Fabius has earned his champagne: “This was the most tightly run COP ever in history and we thank [France] for that," she said.

Of course, as suggested by the McKibben team's reaction, optimism is great, but also a little dangerous—and since Paris was always intended to be the "floor" for addressing climate change, such optimism should be deeply qualified.

"The real threat is that people then say, 'OK, they solved it, let's keep doing business as usual,'" Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic and a long-time observer of these conferences, told my colleague Ted Scheinman this evening. "That's the real threat of a positive message coming out of here, is that everybody then says: 'Well great, back to business as usual. The leaders solved everything, France perfect, Paris, celebration, yay.'"

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"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.

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