Climate talks contend with both villains, heroes as deadline looms

The most effective obstacles to a strong Paris climate agreement are the countries like Saudi Arabia that aren’t standing on the sidelines, but instead are working at every level to block efforts at finding common ground, Nahlah Ayed writes.

India, China surprise while Saudi Arabia infuriates by trying hard to get in way of deal

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz (from left), California Governor Edmund Brown, Saudi Arabia's Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi and Sweden's Minister for Energy Ibrahim Baylan attend a meeting at the U.S. Center during the World Climate Change Conference 2015. Saudi Arabia and some of its allies are actively blocking efforts aimed at finding common ground at the conference. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters News Agency)

This story is part of CBC News special coverage of climate change issues in connection with the United Nations climate change conference (COP21) being held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.

Ask those who followed the painful, lower-level climate negotiations last week, and invariably, Saudi Arabia comes up most often as the country that seemed to try the hardest to get in the way of agreement.

Every world gathering has detractors inside, as well as its holdouts — the obstinate ones that stand on the sidelines, arms crossed, unimpressed or uninterested.

In Paris, among them are also the war-torn, the cautious and the defiant. They are also a small minority. Just 10 countries, including Venezuela (a significant oil producer), North Korea, Nicaragua and Syria have not yet declared national targets for reducing emissions — unlike a record 185 others represented here at COP21 that have done so.

Those holdouts alone won't stop a deal from taking shape.

But the most effective obstacles to a strong Paris agreement are in fact the ones who aren't standing on the sidelines, but instead are working on the plenary floor, in spinoff groups, at every possible level, actively blocking efforts at finding common ground.

There are about 40,000 people, including heads of state, negotiators, activists and journalists, in Paris to hash out a ground-breaking international agreement to put a brake on global warming. The deadline is 6 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 11. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)
Countries like Saudi Arabia, one of the world's largest oil producers, and some of its allies.

Though it has submitted national targets for emission — seemingly more of a team player than in the past — Saudi Arabia has actively pushed against any mention in the deal of a more ambitious 1.5 Celsius limit to the rise in global average temperatures. A growing number of countries, including Canada, are in favour of mentioning it, due to the efforts of a block of vulnerable countries that have managed to persuade them.

Not the Saudis.

"Saudi Arabia is acting as a roadblock," says Liz Gallagher of E3G, a London-based environmental organization.

"In addition to that, they were asking for money for technology themselves … as well as not give anything in.

"So it's really just a harsh play for them to come here and do that."

Saudi Arabia, remember, is one of the world's richest nations — its economy is larger than Canada's. For comparison: Canada threw in $2.65 billion to help developing countries start to reduce their emissions.

Saudi Arabia says only more developed countries should contribute.

And as oil producers go, Norway, another noted producer, is playing a constructive role.

Huge exercise in diplomacy

Still, it seems there is enough goodwill, and good negotiators, in the room to raise expectations about the prospects of delivering a "Paris Agreement" on deadline, at 6 p.m. local time on Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the Earth to Paris summit in Paris on Monday. How the U.S. interacts with China and India in particular, two of the three top global emitters of CO2, is expected to set the tone of the closing days of the COP21 talks. (Mandel Ngan/The Associated Press)
What gives many people hope here, for one, is that it is French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius presiding over one of the world's largest and perhaps complicated diplomatic exercises ever.

A seasoned diplomat with a personal touch and a strict work ethic, Fabius is very well regarded and respected among developed and developing nations.

He calls this week the "week of hope," — and insisted the week start on Sunday.

"I intend to muster the experience of my entire life to the service of success for next Friday," he said in an emotional speech on the weekend.

Also adding more diplomatic heft to the gathering is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a longtime champion of a global climate agreement and still fresh from one of the longest and most complicated-ever diplomatic marathons, with Iran.

How the U.S. interacts with China and India, the two others of the three top global emitters, will continue to set the tone of the talks.

They have locked horns over the big questions of finance and transparency. The U.S. wants a mechanism to make sure signatories live up to the national targets to which they have committed.

Surprisingly constructive

India insists developed countries shoulder more of the burden and cost of cutting global emissions because they are largely responsible for it.

Saudi Arabia has actively pushed against any mention in the COP21 draft deal of a more ambitious 1.5 Celsius limit to the rise in global average temperatures. A growing number of countries, including Canada, are in favour of mentioning it. (Christophe Ena/The Associated Press)
Whether those or other countries are seen so far as heroes or villains inside the negotiating room depends on who is looking.

Both China and India have been surprisingly constructive, say some observers, while still maintaining the power to scuttle the talks should they wish.

India for example, is seen by many developing countries as a champion of their cause, while staying flexible on the possibility of contributing to the fund dedicated to helping developing countries. Negotiators say they're waiting to see what developed countries, especially the U.S., come up with first.

India has also shown it can be a leader on new technology, by heading a group of countries announcing last week they would aggressively develop solar power.

"Many of us were concerned when we were coming into Paris that [India] would be defensive and reactive.  And actually what they've done is they've come in with a more constructive tone," says Gallagher.

China has promised to put $3.1 billion US into a fund to help developing nations and is committed to cutting its emissions enough for them to stabilize or start falling by 2030.

"It's time for China to be doing what it's doing," says Louise Comeau of Canada's Climate Action Network. "That change in its stance is welcome and appropriate and exciting."

Helpful on human rights

She also said Canada is playing an increasingly constructive role. During last week's talks, officials led by chief negotiator Louise Métivier, were particularly helpful on indigenous and human rights issues, as well as transitions for workers from traditional fossil fuel industries.

This week, Canada will be directly presiding over some part of the attempt to remove the many vexatious brackets still lingering in the draft text.

The view from Canada's place in the main gathering room for ministers at the Paris climate change conference. Canada has committed $2.65 billion to help developing countries start to reduce their emissions. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)
Fabius seems intent on delivering the agreement he's been tasked to corral. So he has tasked 14 ministers from around the world — about an equal number from developed and developing countries — to help him smooth the way to a deal by the end of the week.

Among them is Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who does have some experience in UN negotiations after working on a treaty between the governments of East Timor and Australia.

"I think the ability to talk to different people and look at how we can despite our differences come together and find solutions, I think that's a strength I bring," she said in an interview with CBC News last month.

Some other successes, surprises and concerns so far:

  • The Guardian reported today that, according to EU sources, Russia's Vladimir Putin has promised not to get in the way of an agreement. He's "understood to have given his personal assurance to Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, that his negotiators will not block an agreement that has the backing of other major countries," the paper reported.
  • The EU, while often constructive, has been "very quiet on key issues," says Ria Voorhar of the Climate Action Network, such as how to implement a regular review of national targets, and how to finance insurance for countries that suffer climate-related catastrophe. The EU "should become more of a bridge builder as in the past, in this second week," Voorhar says.
  • Another surprisingly constructive participant: Mexico, Comeau says. "They've been recognized as regularly bringing forward bridging text and ideas and trying to be conciliatory."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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