An End or a New Beginning? Day One, and the Dividing Lines are Set in Paris


World leaders gathered in Paris, a city still coming to terms with the aftermath of Friday the 13th of November, for the opening session of the 21st Conference of Parties, COP 21 if you’re twitter minded. Barack Obama, Prince Charles, Vladamir Putin, Nerandra Modi, and Xi Jinping were among the first dignitaries to take the stage at the most important climate change conference since Copenhagen in 2009 got underway. 145 followed thereafter each speaker limited to only two minutes to distil their collective wisdom.

From the lingering sense of tragedy a spirit of resolve characterised many of the contributions. “We salute the people of Paris for insisting this crucial conference go on - an act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children,” began Barack Obama, before warning, “for all the challenges we face, the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other.” Some, not least Duncan Green of the Guardian, have noted that in history extreme events often accelerate the pace of political change. Maybe, he asks in his column today, the tragic events in Paris will see world leaders put aside their differences and unite around a climate change deal.

Maybe. Yet the politics of climate change are intense and often bitter. Divisions between nations run deep and stretch far into the past. In carefully crafted diplomatic speeches, which ran wildly over their allocated two minute slots, age old dividing lines were as rigidly in place as ever they were, and unity was for another day.

One of the first up, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping was cautious. The conference is “not a finish line, but a new beginning” he said, to the disappointment of many who view this conference as the crescendo to 21 years of intense negotiations. In a speech littered with caveats and get-out-clauses, Xi Jinping called on the West to stump up more cash to tackle climate change, while claiming China’s place as a world leader in the deployment of renewable energy. Renewable rich China may be, but as the world’s largest emitter and second richest country the fate of these climate talks will depend on China’s willingness to do more to abate the emissions form its chugging coal plants. It is widely recognised that we are not on track to meet the two degree target. Over the next two weeks many will be looking to China to step up to the plate – not least Xi Jinping’s own citizens, shrouded in a cloud of smog.

If Xi Jinping was quietly pessimistic, his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi had no hesitation in telling the conference exactly what he thought. In a speech channeling Billy Joel, Modi was clear: “climate change is not of our making”. Indeed, India didn’t start the fire, but as the world’s third largest emitter they certainly have a part to play in putting it out. Don’t be fooled by Modi’s desire for a “comprehensive, equitable and durable agreement”, for it is exactly what counts as comprehensive, equitable and durable that has been the subject of twenty years of negotiations.

For some, particularly developing nations, the issue at the heart of the negotiations is cash. Cash to deal with the consequences of climate change that they didn’t create but are most affected by. That was the subject of perhaps the most strident intervention of the day, from South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. In a pre-released speech he said: “climate finance must be scaled up significantly beyond the $100-billion mark for the post-2020 period. Should the developed nations fail to play their part‚ an impression will be created that the climate change crisis was caused by a few privileged nations who are not sympathetic about its impact on the majority.”

So the dividing lines are clearly set. It is down to environment ministers and a myriad of officials to hunker down and find a solution. While many questions remain unanswered one thing is clear, if day one is anything to go by, it’s likely to be a long, long two weeks in Paris.