The Negotiation of the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement

  Author: Mark Miceli-Farrugia
  Dated: 2015-12-22
  Uploaded: 2019-09-04


The Negotiation of the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement


1.  The Lead-up to the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement

2.  The Geopolitical Groups & their Climate Change Negotiation Objectives

3.  The Outcome of the Negotiations

4.  A Brief Assessment of the Agreement’s Alleged Successes

5. A Brief Assessment of the Agreement’s Alleged Failures

6.  A Study of the Negotiation Involved in Reaching the Paris Climate Agreement.

7.  A Study of the Paris Agreement’s Implementation Plans


1.  The Lead-Up to the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement

Earth’s climate has been constantly fluctuating over geological time. However, scientists are concerned that gases released from modern-day industry and agriculture are becoming trapped in Earth’s atmosphere and consequently boosting the natural greenhouse effect. The resultant global warming has serious implications for the stability of our planet’s climate.

  1. Radiation Equilibrium

Earth is constantly bombarded with enormous amounts of radiation, primarily from the sun. About 30 percent of this solar radiation striking Earth’s atmosphere is immediately reflected back out to space by clouds, ice, snow, sand and other reflective surfaces. The remaining 70 percent of incoming solar radiation is absorbed by and heats up the oceans, the land and the atmosphere. [1]

The equilibrium of incoming and outgoing radiation makes the Earth habitable, resulting in an average temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius.

  1. The Greenhouse Effect & Global Warming

The exchange of incoming and outgoing radiation that warms the Earth is similar to the operation of a greenhouse and is therefore referred to as the ‘greenhouse effect’.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and other less abundant greenhouse gases (GHG) like methane and nitrous oxide (N2O) act like a blanket, absorbing infrared radiation and preventing it from escaping into outer space. The net effect is the gradual heating of Earth’s atmosphere and surface, a process known as global warming. 

CO2 is emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, as well as through the cutting-down of carbon-absorbing forests.  CO2 persists relatively long in the atmosphere and can be absorbed in limited quantities by the Earth’s oceans.

  1. The Evidence of Global Warming.

Since the industrial revolution began in 1750, CO2 levels on our planet  have risen by more than 30% and methane levels have risen more than 140%. CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years [2]

Satellite data shows an average increase in global sea levels of some 3mm per year in recent decades. As seawater warms up, the molecules become less densely packed, causing an increase in the volume of the ocean.

Since 1979, satellite records show a dramatic decline in Arctic sea-ice extent, at an annual rate of 4% per decade. In 2012, the ice extent reached a record minimum that was 50% lower than the 1979-2000 average.      

  1. The Implications of Higher Temperatures

Every continent and practically every nation has been impacted by the effects of climate change. The associated higher temperatures are not only testified by the rapidly declining ice-sheet territories available to polar bears and other cold-climate fauna at the poles. Around the world, there is incontestable scientific evidence of the increased incidence of:

  • Stormier storms because hurricanes pick up the increased water vapours released by rising sea temperatures, creating more intense storms, e.g. the recent, atypical storms in the UK.
  • Chillier cold due to the impact of melting snow and ice which cool the receiving seawater. Seawater usually moderates temperatures in adjacent coastal areas, e.g. the changing climate patterns in the northeast USA.
  • Drier deserts since previously arid areas can expect to be drier for more extensive periods, e.g. the protracted droughts in the Horn of Africa.
  • Drought conditions wrought by reduced rainfall, e.g. the bone-dry fields in the once fertile Syrian and Iraqi countrysides which obliged farmers to repair to the already congested and poverty-stricken cities.
  • Increased flooding deriving from rising sea-levels, unusually heavy rainfall, and rapidly melting snow (the unusual, recent, recurrent floods in eastern Europe).

For nearly 20 years, UN negotiators have been trying – futilely – to formulate a legally binding global treaty that would require countries to cut emissions significantly. The problem is that such attempts were decreed top-down. The Paris Agreement achieved unanimous support because the 195 countries that signedon were permitted to formulate climate change plans which took into account their respective national circumstances and capabilities,

2.  The Geopolitical Groups & their Climate Change Negotiation Objectives

     There are essentially three groups to the Climate Change Negotiations:

  1. The developed nations: United States, the European Union and Japan. These respectively account for 16%, 10% and 4% of global emission of greenhouse gases – a total 30%. [3] This group of nations, sometimes referred to as the ‘climate ambition’ group, has high ambitions for a strong, enduring climate agreement that brings in both emerging and major developing countries on a relatively equal footing. This group acknowledges a historic responsibility for climate change and has offered to fund emission-reduction initiatives in aligned, developing countries.
  1. The emerging nations: China, India and Russia. These account for another 28%, 6% and 6% of global GHG emissions – a total of 40%. [4] This group steered a careful course between shouldering their responsibility as high-emission, emerging superpowers and their traditional role as defenders of the developing countries. China, especially, fears an overly restrictive agreement and intrusive monitoring of its domestic progress.
  1. The developing nations:  These include the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group; the overlapping Africa Group; the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF); and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Group. These countries, which account for 30% of global GHG emissions [5], are also referred to as ‘climate equity’ parties. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) interprets ‘equity’ as “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” [6] Developing nations have historically focused on trying to win funding to help adapt to climate impacts. The CVF Group – bringing together countries most at risk from sea level rise and extreme weather events, while interested in funding, is especially keen on securing binding action to limit climate change to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. [7]

3.  The Outcome of the Negotiations

In the final analysis, the High Ambition Coalition, which included the USA, the EU, Brazil, SIDS, and the CVF rallied around an ambitious agreement of tough emission-mitigation rules and moderately increased funding pledges. [8] The benefits of preventing dangerous climate change clearly outweighed the costs of phasing fossil fuel use.

The key commitments of the Paris Agreement are [9]:

  1. To hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels: This is a more ambitious objective than in previous international agreements on climate change. Furthermore, in a concession to small island and highly vulnerable states, the text also includes an aspiration to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.
  1. To aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, while recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing countries. Although no target year has been set for this emissions peak, there is a long-term commitment to achieve a balance of verifiable changes in carbon stocks in the second half of this century. This effectively translates into a goal of zero emissions to be achieved at some point beyond 2050. Such zero emissions might be achieved through the cultivation of new forests or via carbon-capture and storage technology.
  1. To set up an ongoing framework that will encourage countries to communicate and update their climate policy targets in the form of intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) on a regular five-yearly basis. The agreement establishes a framework of five-yearly “stocktakes” of progress made on climate policies from 2018, and these in turn will form the basis of submissions to be made by countries to strengthen their commitments to reduce emissions. These periodic national commitments are to be submitted every five years from 2020. The agreement therefore sets in motion a framework for an ongoing review of strategies to strengthen emissions reduction commitments over time.
  1. To guarantee continued and enhanced climate finance from the developed world to assist developing countries to adopt a lower emissions pathway and build climate resilience into their economies. A target of US$100bn is to be provided annually by 2020, with a floor of US$100bn in annual finance to be pledged by 2025, although delivered assistance is likely to be less than the amount pledged.


4.   A Brief Assessment of the Agreement’s Alleged Successes

The Paris Climate Change Agreement is lauded because it represents a radical break with the past [10] and because it strikes a delicate balance between ambition, universality and solidarity [11]:

a)    It is a voluntary agreement:

in contrast with its previous climate change agreements, it promotes a cooperative, win-win approach with its signatories:

  • No country is obliged to make emission cuts; each country is simply required to submit a nationally devised plan to address climate change.
  • No country will be penalized if it fails to live up to its promises; each country will, however, need to report on its progress in transparent ways and submit a new plan every five years.

The architects of this deal hope that peer pressure will encourage nations to ratchet up their plans and ambitions over time. [12]

b)  It is an ambitious agreement:

it establishes the target of limiting the increase in temperatures to well below 2°C, and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. It envisages the peaking of emissions as soon as possible and emissions neutrality in the second half of the 21st century.  This explains the provision for:

    • the five-yearly INDC submissions;
    • the five-yearly global stocktake review from 2023 onwards;
    • the initial progress review meeting in 2018, designed to update INDCs. [13]

c)  It is a universal agreement:  

it reflects the commitment of all countries – developed and developing - to reduce their emissions. By taking into account respective national circumstances and capabilities, it acknowledges the gradual convergence of developing countries towards such a reduction. [14]

d)  It is an inclusive agreement which affirms solidarity

it endorses the commitment of developed countries to support developing countries in their efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change with a budget of $100bn per year until 2025. Adaptation recognizes the issue of loss and damage – it acknowledges the harm caused to people displaced by climate change effects. [15]

5.   A Brief Assessment of the Agreement’s Alleged Failures [16]

 a)  The temperature targets are too ambitious and will never be met

The agreement does, however, convert the temperature targets – in concrete terms – into a global, monitorable, greenhouse pathway. This will enable us to gradually reduce the gap between current INDCs (around 3°C) and our targets. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will publish a report on the impacts and emissions pathway linked to 1.5°C.

b)  This agreement is the bare minimum

On the contrary, the agreement demonstrates the common determination of States to provide a universal response to climate change – at least 187 INDCs have been published to-date. Many points in the agreement – five year cycles, long-term objectives, taking loss and damage into account – go far beyond expectations just a few months ago.

c)  Nothing will happen before 2020:  

Predictably, States will be implementing their cooperation projects – clean technologies, climate warning systems, and African renewable energy – straight away. Non-State actors are going to take further action which is immediately applicable. They will meet in 2018 to review their progress and prepare or update their INDCs.

d)  There is inadequate focus on carbon pricing and renewable energy sources:

True!  Although the Paris Agreement explicitly mentions carbon pricing as an incentive to reduce emissions, it does so only in passing. Besides, the Paris Agreement simply underlines the importance of extending renewable energy to developing countries, notably in Africa, but goes no further. Critics maintain that the lack of determination to adopt carbon pricing across the board could seriously undermine efforts to implement the Paris Agreement. The costs of greenhouse gas emissions need to be accounted for, and a price can help do this. Moreover, the revenues from taxes (or pollution permits) could be used by governments to invest in the necessary infrastructure and technology to build low-carbon economies. [16]

6.   A Study of the Negotiation Involved in Reaching the Paris Climate Agreement.

     Apart from the cooperative negotiation terms discussed above, ‘negotiation’ also includes:

     a)   The Key Negotiating Actors;

     b)   The Negotiation Processes; and

     c)   The Use of the ‘Indaba’ Negotiation Tactic.

     a)   The Key Negotiating Actors

The successful Paris Agreement had many heroes, including the French hosts, United Nations officials, and the climate activists who always believed in the possibility of a global accord.

  • France’s Foreign Minister and President of the COP21 Summit, Laurent Fabius, and the French Ambassador for the climate negotiations, Laurence Tubiana, have been praised for their diplomatic skills, patience and ability to listen to and respect the views of all participants. Mme Tubiana is credited with the idea of inviting the heads of state to open rather than close the conference: the countries’ leaders’ call for an ambitious agreement early on provided negotiators with a stronger mandate and incentive to find consensus. [17]
  • Other leading actors were U.S. President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Kerry’s chief negotiator, Todd Stern, who together engaged China. Chinese involvement not only persuaded other developing countries to come aboard; it also deprived opponents in the U.S. Congress of their old argument that American action was pointless “because China would never go along.” [18]
  • Reportedly, another important player was Pope Francis, who personally persuaded unyielding President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua to sign up to the Agreement. [19]
  • At COP21 some of the world’s largest corporations joined an initiative of 114 companies that adopted science-based carbon-reduction targets. A notable example is the new global clean energy research project launched by innovative entrepreneurs Bill Gates (Microsoft), Richard Branson (The Virgin Group), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) at COP21.
  • The leaders of 10 of the world’s biggest oil companies – the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative - also offered their qualified support for a new global treaty on climate change. The producers of 20% of the world’s oil and gas, including BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco, and Total, declared that they share the ambition to limit warming to 2°C. They acknowledged that the existing trend of the world’s net greenhouse gas emissions is not consistent with this aim. They promised to promote natural gas as a better option than coal and to invest in carbon capture and storage as well as renewable energy. [20]


b)  The Negotiation Processes

Many experts attribute the success of the unanimous Paris Agreement to its ‘Bottom-up’ nature. In previous Climate Change Conferences, many countries had feared that legally binding, emission-reduction targets might undermine their economic growth. Consequently, the option of self-generated, climate-action pledges (INDCs) helped persuade large emerging economies such as China and India and oil-producing nations like Bolivia and Venezuela to sign up to the deal. The latter two countries had been instrumental in stalling Copenhagen’s Climate Change Conference in 2009.

c)   The Use of the ‘Indaba’ Negotiation Tactic

In Paris, the French negotiators adopted a traditional South African negotiating tactic to speed up decision-making and bring opposing countries together in Paris. The French used the ‘indaba’ tactic practised by Zulu and Xhosa communities to give everyone equal opportunity to voice their opinions in order to work toward consensus. [21]

Instead of repeating stated positions, diplomats were encouraged to form a standing circle and talk personally and directly about their “red lines” – thresholds they don’t want to cross. But while telling others their hard limits, they were also asked to provide solutions to find common ground. 

By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, this tactic can achieve a remarkable breakthrough within a short while. It has the advantage of being participatory yet fair. It has been used to narrow differences between countries behind closed doors.

7.   A Study of the Paris Agreement’s Implementation Plans

22 April 2016 :    Paris Agreement will be opened for ratification by States. It will enter into force after ratification by 55 countries, representing at least 55% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Implementation of this Agreement will lead to the creation of mechanisms for:

  • raising ambitions;
  • providing financial support; and
  • tracking support and effort.

Every 5 years:  Every country will have to submit or update its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) – ideally prompted by increased ambition each time.

2018:  A first stocktake on pre-2020 ambition will take place. All parties will need to develop a new Transparency Framework, which will take into account countries’ capabilities, and will ensure the transparency of mitigation and adaptation efforts and financial support.

2020:  An Implementation Mechanism, with established Rules of Procedure, will start to operate. This mechanism will facilitate implementation and promote fulfilment of national commitments. Reputation and moral suasion will serve as a powerful means for the fulfilment of a country’s commitments.

2023:  Contributions will be reviewed every five years.


Mark Miceli-Farrugia [22-12-15]



[1]    What is the Greenhouse Effect? Marc Lallanila, Live Science, January 28, 2015

[2]    What is climate change?  Science & Environment, BBC News, 22 October, 2015

[3]    Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data, EPA from National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2011, U.S. Department of Energy, Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J., 2015

[4]    Ibid.

[5]    Ibid.

[6]     Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC) is a principle within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that acknowledges the different capabilities and differing responsibilities of individual countries in addressing climate change.

[7]    The Geopolitics of the Paris Talks, Nick Mabey, Foreign Affairs. December 13, 2015

[8]    Ibid.

[9]    Climate of Change,  The Economist Intelligence Unit,  December 16th 2015.

[10]   Past climate treaties failed. So the Paris deal will try something radically different, Brad Plumer, Vox, December 14, 2015

[11]   Press Brief – Paris Outcome

[12]   Ibid.

[13]   Ibid.

[14]   Ibid.

[15]   Ibid.

[16]   The 5 key takeaways from the Paris climate change agreement, Martin Koehring, Global, December 14, 2015

[17]   Ibid.

[18]   The Paris Climate Pact Will Need Strong Follow-Up, The Editorial Board, The New York Times, December 14, 2015

[19]   COP21: Did the Pope save the climate deal? Roger Harrabin, BBC News, 13 December 2015

[20]   Paris climate summit: Major oil producers back ‘effective’ deal, Matt McGrath, BBC News, 16 October 2015

[21]   This simple negotiation tactic brought 195 countries to consensus, Akshat Rathi, Quartz, December 12, 2015




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