Guest blog: The end of negotiations: delivering on the Paris Agreement ambition

Guest  blog by Herman Sips written in his personal capacity: 

The Paris Agreement: A great diplomatic achievement


December 12th marks the 5 year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement. A major achievement based on great diplomatic and ambitious efforts by many in the negotiations leading up to Paris. A skillful handling of the process, many informal and bilateral meetings and a great push by progressive alliances helped to get the Agreement over the finish line. I still vividly remember the excitement, relief and pride in the hall when the sound of the gavel marked the adoption of the Agreement.

A machinery set to deliver

The Paris Agreement is a (complex) machinery set to deliver an upward spiral of ambition and action. With the goal that in 2050 all we do has no impact on the climate (climate neutrality). To operate that machinery and ensure its delivery the operations manual had to be agreed resulting in a long partly still ongoing negotiation process. That finalization is more than ever needed to set the machinery in full motion. We are not in lane to reach the Paris goals and yet the ambition, action and energy with many in society is high to make it happen.

A race yet to win

Five years after Paris we find ourselves in a completely different world due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It calls for a reflection on the fabric of our society, our vulnerabilities and interdependencies and our relation with nature. It forces us to handle the harsh consequences of the pandemic on lives, health, poverty and economics affecting the most poor and vulnerable hardest. Our response to that offers a great opportunity to contribute to fighting climate change.

That opportunity with its multiple benefits is too good to miss out on. One thing hasn’t changed since Paris. Climate change will have to be stopped to avoid its adverse impacts on people, livelihoods, health, security and economics leaving the most poor and vulnerable most at risk. We will need to Race To Zero. A race we can win and must win. And a race that will benefit all of us by winning it.

Delivering on ambition

Raising ambition is key the coming years. Current goals are insufficient and won´t keep climate change in check as the recent UN Environment report and many others show. We should mind the gap and close it. But equally important should be the delivering on those promises. There is great momentum and ambition in markets, business, civil society, cities, regions, women, youth to do so.

A process fit for purpose

I have been a climate negotiator for more than a decade and firmly believe that multilateralism and the UN process on climate change are pivotal in fighting climate change. Yet I also feel we may need to reconsider the makeup of that process. Five years after Paris and with an even more urgent need to accelerate and get in lane for the Paris goals this may be a good moment.

Are we taking out the oxygen of the process?

In this day and age we have almost fully transitioned to virtual interaction and meetings. Easier to organize, with far less carbon footprint and a far higher attendance that virtual reality has appeal. Some even wonder if this is providing the model for the future. Could the major climate meetings be organized that way? Would that provide an end to negotiations in that alleged ´old-fashioned´ way. I don’t suppose and hope so. The essence of the negotiations is in the interaction, the informality and the building trust. Much happens in corridors, in huddles, at coffee machines, by reading between the lines, testing the water and taking a deep look in each other’s eyes. Virtual platforms would have a hard time offering that it seems to me. I find it much harder to read the nonverbal signs and judge the temperature in the room? Not being in the same room and jointly going through the by times frustrating, semi ritual process with sleepless nights and many opportunities for ´informal-informals´, may be a relief but could also take too much oxygen out of diplomacy and negotiations. 

The end of negotiations?

Once the operation manual of the Paris machine is negotiated what is at the core of the Paris  agreement? At the core of the process is the collective aspiration to create an upward spiral of ambition. That is done in a 5 year cycle of national climate ´plans´, the so called National Determined Contribution. Those plans set out an ambition and implementation agenda for five years.

After five years they are revisited. A revision that should lead to a higher ambition according to the Paris Agreement. You will only know if we are on the right track if we take the pulse regularly: Are we doing enough individually and collectively? These moments of stocktaking are crucial in the cycle.

Yet greater focus should be given to the ´pulse´. Raising ambition will depend on confidence to do more, demonstrated success in implementation and support to do more by many in society. That largely comes from the actions that are taken in real implementation and by non-state actors in the ´real economy´, in sectors, in cities, in communities and livelihoods and in regions. Their contribution to the Race To Zero should be empowered, enabled and incentivized.

That should be at the core of the UNFCC process for the 3 years following the submission of NDC in year 1 and leading up to an upward revision in year 5. For those familiar with the color coding at the COP meeting it would mean that the Green zone, the zone where the actions is, for a number of years should have greater centrality than the Blue zone where government officials ´negotiate´. It would mean that the Race To Zero takes center stage in those years. And that processes to strengthen capacity for implementation and empowerment of key stakeholders get by far more spotlight than they currently do.

An end to negotiations?

In that sense there may be an end to negotiations. Negotiations have delivered a machinery for  delivery and its operational manual. Now the machinery needs to deliver and enable the Race To Zero. That should have greater centrality and prominence for a number of years. The actions by many and their greater capacity and empowerment will enable an acceleration in the next lap of the race. The diplomacy, the political heavy lifting and the informal gathering and confidence building will continue to be pivotal. Yet a different word than negotiation may better reflect the aspiration of those much needed efforts. Efforts I hope we showcase and partner and build on in physical meetings, meeting people face-to-face with enough oxygen.

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