Ministers from 196 countries hit the ground running at Paris over the weekend. The ministerial round of climate change summit was advanced by a day, with the French hosts announcing the talks would begin on Sunday afternoon and not Monday, as scheduled.
Environment minister Prakash Javadekar reached Paris on Saturday evening and began with a series of bilateral meetings. His Sunday morning was as packed, with the afternoon requiring his presence at the main negotiations venue, Le Bourget - an old airport where the hangars have been redesigned to hold around 30,000 people.
The hosts and now the presidency of the summit, France, set up an elaborate system to engage the ministers and the negotiators through the week with the hope of finalising a draft of the Paris package by Wednesday.
They would be working against history. Rarely have such annual meetings of the UN framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ended as scheduled in the past decade. But the hosts were keen to have the final draft by Wednesday night so that a legally tenable version can be produced over Thursday and approved by all countries on Friday night.
On Saturday evening, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced how the ministerial week would proceed. Four parallel groups were set up for ministers to engage in. Each of the group, headed by two ministers, would focus on a cluster of elements that together comprise the Paris deal. They would be supported by four groups of negotiators also clustered around the same set of issues, helping by cleaning up the proposals that find political resolution at the ministerial level on each element. All these meetings would run behind closed doors. A daily stock-take would help provide all a collective sense of how the negotiations are progressing.
However, the choice of ministers to lead the talks in the four clusters left some developing countries worried. It is usual practice for the host Presidency to select one minister from the developed countries’ bloc and another from the developing bloc. The French chose the minister from Gabon, a francophone African nation, and one from Germany to deal with the critical talks on financial and other support to be provided by the rich countries to the developing world. The choice of ministers from developing countries for other groups as well, some delegates complained, was “convenient” for the developed world. The French decision to ask the minister of St Lucia — an island country seen strongly influenced by the US — to help conduct negotiations on the issue of a long-term goal of the Paris agreement also raised concerns among the G77 countries. While the ministers might not be able to dictate terms, their political inclinations make a difference as they push the conversation in specific directions.
At the same time the head of the G77+China group, Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko’s statements candidly talking in public of attempts to bully negotiators from developing world raised concerns in the camp behind closed doors.
The Indian delegation spent Saturday evening and Sunday in group meetings as well as bilaterals across the board to prepare joint strategies and understand the red lines of those holding opposing views. A four-hour meeting of the Like-Minded Developing Countries went on with China, India and several other countries such as Argentina, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia finding a cohesive way forward.
The coming week is expected to see many ministers, including Javadekar, join the conversation publicly as an array of press conferences would be planned by each to put out their respective public messages, even as hard-nosed negotiations are held behind closed doors. “In next three days the 196 ministers will try to stich up what their countries have fought over four years now. Good luck to them,” said one of the observers with a wry smile.
India’s minister, Javadekar put out a release trying to bring realism to the rhetoric, saying, “India is also determined not to make Paris Summit like past summits where we all returned home with false optimism and fictitious hopes. For India it is a question of present and future lives of our 1.27 billion people with aspirations to develop.”
He reiterated one of the few clear objectives the Indian delegation has been tasked to ensure by the government, “India is here to ensure that seminal principle of CBDR is respected, and India is here to ensure that Rich countries pay back their debt for overdraft that they have drawn on the carbon space. UNFCCC is a global climate constitution. It is fundamental. Any attempt to rewrite or to overwrite will not be acceptable to anybody. Our collective decision should be based on Science, CBDR and Collective Conscience.” But he, as others know just as well, climate summits and their results are fueled by geopolitics. Sometimes, and only sometimes, in the process collective conscience and science also win some space as a co-benefit.