Photographer: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

By Adding One Word, UN Climate Deal Moves in New Direction

Updated on
  • `Decarbonization' concept added to draft UN agreement
  • Word is `provocative' says former UN climate chief Cutajar

Eliminating fossil fuels from the world’s energy supply is back on the United Nations agenda as envoys from around the world wrap up a week of discussions about a deal on global warming they intend to adopt by the end of the year.

QuickTake Climate Change

The delegates drawn from energy and environment ministries in more than 190 nations are grappling with a draft of an agreement for a UN summit in Paris in December. The text ended up on Friday with a word it lacked on Monday. Introduced by the U.S., it’s deemed crucial by environmental groups for setting the course for business: “Decarbonization.”

“The word is very important to send the direction-of-travel message to the markets,” said Bill Hare, chief executive officer of Potsdam, Germany-based policy researcher Climate Analytics. It “sends a signal to the financial markets, banks and institutions that, if they have fossil-fuel intensive investments, there is a very big financial risk of them having stranded assets.”

The deal would be the first to bind all nations into restrictions on greenhouse gases. It has the potential to catalyze changes in electricity, energy and transportation industries everywhere. With lawyers scrutinizing every comma in the document, each word has weight in setting the course for economic development and to rein in the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Expanding Draft

Over the past five days, envoys expanded the draft to 33 pages from nine in an effort to ensure that key demands will be up for debate in Paris. That’s more manageable than the 200-odd pages negotiators grappled with in the run-up to the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, when they last attempted to forge an agreement. 

With more than 1,000 pairs of brackets in the new text and a separate draft “decision” paper, it’s clear there are areas of contention still need to be settled. The two documents will form the package to be agreed upon in Paris.

‘Important’ Language

“Language is so important and so sensitive, and if you can avoid stepping on people’s toes, my line is you should avoid it,” Michael Zammit Cutajar, who set up the UN climate secretariat in 1991 and headed it until 2002, said in an interview. Decarbonization is “a provocative word for countries whose main occupation is producing and selling carbon.”

The word was added to the text earlier in the week at the request of the U.S. delegation. It reflects the position of the Group of Seven industrial nations and was included in a statement from the group in June.

“If Paris lands with the decarbonization of the global economy, it would be a clear signal both to the coal-dependent countries and industries but also to the oil-producing countries,” said Martin Kaiser, head of climate policy for the environmental group Greenpeace.

It’s those oil producers that oppose the language, pointing out that fossil fuel emissions aren’t the only cause of warming. Deforestation and other gases also play a role.

“Our approach is that we have an aspirational long-term goal of a low-emissions pathway,” said Gurdial Singh Nijar, a Malaysian envoy who speaks for a bloc of nations that includes oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iraq. “We do not support the options on quantifying emissions and decarbonization.”

Bigger Issue

Russian envoy Oleg Shamanov pointed out that there are greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide that need to be covered by any goal. “The bigger issue is overall emissions,” he said.

For island nations, more important than decarbonization is that the global temperature rise since industrialization be capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), compared with the current target of 2 degrees. They also want provisions on so-called loss and damage that channel financial assistance to help them cope with the effects they already see from rising seas and stronger storms.

“We don’t want to lose these key fundamentals just because of a single word,” said Amjad Abdulla, an envoy from the Maldives who speaks for a bloc of 39 island nations.

Financial Aid

Envoys are also stuck on thorny issues that beset the climate talks every year. Topics that aren’t likely to be resolved when discussions wrap up Friday include financial aid to poor nations, loss and damage, the legal form of the deal and the issue of how to differentiate between developed and developing countries, according to European Commission negotiator Elina Bardram.

“You can’t as a rational person compare Chad and China,” Bardram said, referring to a division between developed and developing nations enshrined in the UN process since it began. “To say that you apply the static division of responsibilities from 1990 is disingenuous.”

The G77 group of more than 130 developing nations and China wants to preserve part of that division, saying that financial assistance must flow from richer nations to the poorer ones that need help in cutting emissions.

“Developing countries require climate finance resources, technology transfer and capacity building both now and far into the future,” said South Africa’s Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, who speaks for the group. That’s “an obligation on developed country parties.”

(Updates with new draft document starting in second paragraph.)
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