plenary at COP21 in Paris with graphic overlay

COP21, where the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015. Photo: UNclimatechange / Flickr

Skilful French diplomacy is widely seen as one of the key factors that led to the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The French diplomatic service is often seen as the best in the world, and they lived up to their reputation at the climate negotiations in 2015, known as UNFCCC COP21.

From the outset, the Paris conference was going to present a “now or never” moment. After the spectacular collapse of the negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, there could not be another failure. The incoming French COP Presidency understood that like no other.

The Presidency developed a strong professional relationship with the UN Climate Change secretariat across all levels: from the very top – where France’s climate change ambassador Laurence Tubiana and UN Climate Change’s Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres formed a powerful personal bond – to the policy analysts who worked day and night to make sure they were prepared for every possible turn of events.

The Presidency then choreographed and organized the negotiations extremely well, not only during COP21 but already during the year before negotiators and heads of state met in Paris. For every single issue that required agreement, options were laid out and trade-offs were considered. The French held countless bilateral meetings aimed at understanding key priorities and red lines of other countries and, in the process, building trust.

Getting the structure of the Paris Agreement itself right was another balancing act, as was finding the sweet spot between being too prescriptive and too non-committal. The Agreement needed to be sufficiently concrete while at the same time leaving room to negotiate the details at subsequent climate conferences. This allowed Parties to adopt the Paris Agreement, knowing they could still influence how it would be implemented in subsequent negotiations over the Paris rulebook.

NDCs – the lynchpin of the Paris Agreement

Another remarkable achievement of the Paris Agreement was the role assigned to nationally determined contributions (NDCs): medium-term, country-driven climate action plans that are periodically renewed or updated to reflect increasing ambition. Countries had already started preparing NDCs (then called intended nationally-determined contributions) before Paris. But in Paris, people saw the potential of making NDCs the lynchpin of the agreement, the key instrument for its implementation.

Admittedly, the ambition stated in the current NDCs is insufficient to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 degrees. But that is not a shortcoming of the Paris Agreement per se. Even though its compliance mechanism is weaker than that of the failed Kyoto Protocol, the stronger Kyoto compliance mechanism existed only on paper: countries could flout their targets and then walk out of the Protocol with impunity.

The strength of the NDC process is twofold. First, it involves all countries. Second, countries set themselves clear responsibilities, which have been shown to have legal significance in a number of countries already. Earlier this year, for example, the UK’s Court of Appeal ruled that plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport were illegal because they did not take into account the government’s commitment under the Paris Agreement. In 2019, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands came down with what the New York Times called the “strongest climate ruling yet “, upholding a judgement that the government is obliged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% compared to 1990 by the end of 2020.

Post-Paris frustrations

Despite the successful culmination of COP21 in the adoption of the Paris Agreement, subsequent COP sessions – in Marrakech, Bonn, Katowice and Madrid – created a growing sense of frustration.

One source of frustration has been a mismatch between expectations of the general public and civil society, and what is actually on the agenda at the climate negotiations. Civil society – not least the Fridays for Future movement – expects governments to take decisive steps in addressing the climate crisis. That expectation is expressed all the more loudly as it becomes obvious that countries’ climate action plans and policies are inadequate in light of the ever more apparent impacts of climate change.

But the level of ambition has not been on the agenda of the four climate negotiation sessions since Paris. Instead, these sessions were concerned with the rather technical steps needed to get the Paris rulebook in place. The slow pace of these negotiations has added to the frustration. Even after four years, in Madrid in 2019, countries could not reach agreement on certain technical issues related to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. This means the rulebook is still work in progress.

Opportunity to rethink climate negotiations

For many, the growing frustration alone offers sufficient reason to rethink the format of the climate negotiations. After all, it’s not necessary to bring some 25 000 people together in one place to reach agreement about a rulebook. But there’s another reason to consider alternative formats: with the Paris Agreement in place and the rulebook soon completed, the role of the Conference of the Parties is shifting from negotiating and shaping a global climate policy regime to using this regime to inspire and take stock of climate action, track progress against the agreed global goals of the Paris Agreement, and ramp up ambition where necessary.

This is what meetings of the Parties to, for example, the Montreal Protocol do. The Montreal Protocol has been a tremendous multilateral achievement because it helped to stop stratospheric ozone depletion. It was the result of intense negotiations during the mid 1980s, but once these negotiations were completed and the implementation phase had started, there was relatively little excitement in observing a policy process that by and large works and delivers as planned.

We are not quite there yet with the climate negotiations, but we should aim to expect something similar. The next big moment for the Paris Agreement after COP26 in Glasgow will be the first global stocktake in 2023. There will undoubtedly be a need to ramp up climate ambition but, in the spirit of the NDCs, countries’ ambition is nationally determined, not negotiated. This process will continue in five-year cycles, as determined in the Paris Agreement. This means there would need to be a major gathering every five years, not every single year.

Finding alternatives to physical meetings as a result of the pandemic

Whether or not the climate negotiations are still fit for purpose has been asked before, but until recently, alternatives were never seriously considered. But now, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to do so. Five years after the Paris Agreement was adopted, it is time to make a virtue out of the necessity to rethink how climate negotiations are held.

Online negotiations are the obvious alternative to face-to-face meetings. But the intricacies and legalities of the UNFCCC process, combined with expected high demands on security and access, would make online negotiations a highly complex undertaking. Many conditions would need to be met to ensure that online negotiations were considered both technically and politically feasible.

Organizational challenges would include finding time slots that work for people across all time zones, internet connectivity issues and simultaneous interpretation in all six UN languages. Experience from the past year, when various UNFCCC meetings have been held online (such as the June Momentum and the November Climate Dialogues ) can be useful, although the purpose of these meetings was to share information, not to conduct negotiations.

The question of technical feasibility is ultimately smaller than that of political feasibility: is a physical gathering in plenary necessary to lend legitimacy to any decisions that have been negotiated? And what about inclusivity? COP sessions have been a hustle and bustle of media, civil society, business representatives, researchers and international organizations. This could be difficult to replicate online. Even if it were possible to put 25 000 people together in a Zoom call, it would not create the same visibility as people gathering physically in one place.

To create clarity about the barriers to online negotiations, and about ways of overcoming those barriers, the Swedish Ministry of the Environment has asked the Stockholm Environment Institute to conduct a study to explore the technical and political feasibility of holding the UNFCCC negotiations and related meetings online – and to assess the merit of such an endeavour. An important challenge of the project will be to ensure that any new format benefits rather than harms the quality of the negotiation process and its outcomes, for example by making them more accessible and inclusive, especially for developing countries.