The logo for the 2015 COP21 climate conference in Paris. Graphic: Sustainable Innovation ForumBy Nick Mabey
7 December 2015

(Huffington Post) – As the Paris climate negotiations move into their climactic second week the focus is shifting from technical to political. The negotiating text has been stripped of (much of) its most baroque complications and duplications. What is left reflects core differences between countries.

The second week will demand less a mastery of complex text, and more an ability to navigate the shifting webs of alliances between nearly 200 countries. This will be reflected in a fierce public battle over how to characterise the main political dynamics in Paris. India and South Africa have already attempted to solidify developing country alliances by accusing the US of undermining the fundamental principle of equity in the climate convention. The US has talked of an emerging "high ambition coalition" between countries spanning the traditional rich-poor divide.

By defining the narrative of the negotiations as either a fight for "climate justice" or "climate ambition", countries hope to focus political and media pressure on those they claim are blocking progress. This is tactically understandable but obscures the real politics of the negotiations.

Climate change negotiations are too often described as a kind of environmental cold war between developed and developing countries over a zero-sum "carbon space". But this dynamic has not held for over a decade. The implications of climate change, and its solutions, are too central to countries' core national interests for them to base negotiating positions just on an abstract sense of "historic responsibility". Countries' interests are also too diverse for permanent alliances to be made simply on the basis of similar levels of per capita income. Oil producers, forest nations, high-tech trading centres, low lying or desert countries all have distinct interests to protect.

A better analogy for Paris is the shifting skein of alliances, and periodic conflicts, between late 19th century powers in Europe and West Asia. At this time the major powers had a shared interest in maintaining general stability, but struggled to reconcile this long term goal with the temptations of securing tactical advantages of power or territory. The mismanagement of these divergent short term interests led - inadvertently - to the European disasters of the early 20th century. Shared strategic intentions do not automatically lead to successful tactical diplomacy.

The "major powers" in Paris are the US, EU, China and India. On the opening day of Paris leaders from all of these countries publically committed to deliver a binding deal in Paris capable of keeping warming well below 2C. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of these statements. Given the web of bilateral talks leading up to Paris being seen to publically block agreement would incur significant geopolitical costs. But below these statements of broad strategic intent, understanding the tactical dynamics of Paris requires a clearer view of national interests and how they interact. [more]

Framing the Paris End-Game

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