Paris climate change agreement: the world’s greatest diplomatic success

US secretary of state, John Kerry, talks with China’s special representative on climate change Xie Zhenhua. Photograph: Xinhua / Barcroft Media

In the final meeting of the Paris talks on climate change on Saturday night, the debating chamber was full and the atmosphere tense. Ministers from 196 countries sat behind their country nameplates, aides flocking them, with observers packed into the overflowing hall.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, talked animatedly with his officials, while China’s foreign minister Xie Zhenhua wore a troubled look. They had been waiting in this hall for nearly two hours. The French hosts had trooped in to take their seats on the stage, ready to applaud on schedule at 5.30pm – but it was now after 7pm, and the platform was deserted.

After two weeks of fraught negotiations, was something going badly wrong?

Then at 7.16pm, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, returned abruptly to the stage, flanked by high-ranking UN officials. The last-minute compromises had been resolved, he said. And suddenly they were all on their feet. Fabius brought down the green-topped gavel, a symbol of UN talks, and announced that a Paris agreement had been signed. The delegates were clapping, cheering and whistling wildly, embracing and weeping. Even the normally reserved economist Lord Stern was whooping.

Outside the hall, a “Mexican wave” of standing ovations rippled across the conference centre as news reached participants gathered around screens outside for the translation into their own language. The 50,000 people who attended the summit had been waiting for this moment, through marathon negotiating sessions and sleepless nights.

The contrast with the last global attempt to resolve climate change, at Copenhagen in 2009, which collapsed into chaos and recriminations, could not have been greater. In a city recently hit by terrorist attacks that left 130 dead and scores more critically injured, collective will had prevailed.

Paris produced an agreement hailed as “historic, durable and ambitious”. Developed and developing countries alike are required to limit their emissions to relatively safe levels, of 2C with an aspiration of 1.5C, with regular reviews to ensure these commitments can be increased in line with scientific advice. Finance will be provided to poor nations to help them cut emissions and cope with the effects of extreme weather. Countries affected by climate-related disasters will gain urgent aid.

Like any international compromise, it is not perfect: the caps on emissions are still too loose, likely to lead to warming of 2.7 to 3C above pre-industrial levels, breaching the 2C threshold that scientists say is the limit of safety, beyond which the effects – droughts, floods, heatwaves and sea level rises – are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. Poor countries are also concerned that the money provided to them will not be nearly enough to protect them. Not all of the agreement is legally binding, so future governments of the signatory countries could yet renege on their commitments.

These flaws may shadow the future of climate change action, but on Saturday night they took second place. As the news spread through the world, the reaction from civil society groups, governments and businesses, was overwhelmingly positive.

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, summed up the mood: “It sometimes seems that the countries of the UN can unite on nothing, but nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. Today, the human race has joined in a common cause. The Paris agreement is only one step on a long road and there are parts of it that frustrate, that disappoint me, but it is progress. The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

Even as delegates celebrated at the conference’s end, there was a palpable sense of relief from the exhausted French hosts. At many points in this fortnight of marathon negotiating sessions, it looked as if a deal might be beyond reach. That it ended in success was a tribute in part to their diligence and efficiency and the efforts of the UN.

“France has brought openness and experience in diplomacy, and mutual respect to these talks,” said Stern, one of the world’s leading climate economists. “They have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.”

Saturday night was the culmination not only of a fortnight of talks, but of more than 23 years of international attempts under the UN to forge collective action on this global problem. Since 1992, all of the world’s governments had been pledging to take measures that would avoid dangerous warming. Those efforts were marked by discord and failure, the refusal of the biggest emitters to take part, ineffective agreements and ignored treaties.

For these reasons, the Paris talks were widely seen as make-or-break for the UN process. If they failed, collective global efforts would be at an end and the world would be left without a just and robust means of tackling climate change.

The threat was catastrophic and the stakes could scarcely be higher. Without urgent action, warming was predicted to reach unprecedented levels, of as much as 5C above current temperatures – a level that would see large swathes of the globe rendered virtually uninhabitable. What is more, infrastructure built today – coal-fired power plants, transport networks, buildings – that entail high carbon emissions will still be operating decades into the future, giving the world a narrow window in which to change the direction of our economies.

“This was the last chance,” said Miguel Arias Canete, Europe’s climate chief. “And we took it.”

The terrorist attacks on Paris raised questions about whether the talks would go ahead at all but François Hollande, the French president, insisted that they must and, in a show of unity, more than 150 heads of state landed in the French capital for the opening day. Barack Obama hailed the conference as “an act of defiance” in the face of terrorism.

Immediately after the attacks, the first concern was for security. A planned march through central Paris by protesters was cancelled, though a version of it did go ahead as the talks opened and was marred by clashes with police and a small number of protesters, and arrests. Security for the conference was stepped up, with police and army patrolling the immediate area and transport routes nearby shut down for two days.

This was the biggest ever gathering of world leaders, whose presence was needed to empower their negotiators to move out of positions entrenched for more than 20 years. When they arrived, a series of key meetings were held, with Obama seeing Xi Jinping of China, Narendra Modi of India and representatives from the least developed countries. Hollande concentrated on forging links with the developing world. Angela Merkel, in a private meeting with Vladimir Putin, secured his pledge that Russia would not stand in the way of a deal.

Behind the conference centre gates, French delegates were marshalling their diplomatic forces. They had carefully arranged the conference centre so that their part of the compound – behind barriers staffed by UN guards and secret service officers, unlike the rest of the delegations which were open to access – was directly above the UN’s offices.

Fabius, from his office, could be with Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, for a face-to-face chat within seconds. His fellow minister, Ségolène Royal, was just along the corridor, flanked with the offices of ambassadors and high-ranking officials. Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24 hour news from French and international channels.

But it soon became apparent that things were not going to plan. As countries examined the draft agreement, ministers started raising concerns. On Wednesday afternoon, leading delegations trooped one by one into Fabius’ personal office: Edna Molewa of South Africa, Xie Zhenhua of China, John Kerry of the US, Julie Bishop of Australia.

For South Africa, issues over “loss and damage” emerged – for developed countries, this meant the question of whether developing countries should be entitled to special aid in the event of climate-related disasters; for the developing, it meant compensation and liability, which the US would never agree to. For China, a key sticking point was differentiation – the concept that developing countries have less responsibility for climate change. For the US, some parts of the deal could not be legally binding in order to pass Congress.

Fabius sought to allay their concerns and find a compromise. At 8pm, he convened a new plenary session, at which all countries were able to speak. It carried on through the night.

At this point, it was clear that further efforts were needed. There followed a rapid round of telephone diplomacy. Obama spoke personally to the Chinese leader. Hollande picked up the phone to as many of his counterparts across the world as he could manage.

Finally, after two more days of fraught negotiation, a consensus emerged. None of the major countries wanted to be seen as wrecking a deal that had come so close. All could agree that they wanted an agreement and all made compromises. The EU backed down on having the intended emissions cuts, agreed at a national level, to be legally binding; the US accepted language on “loss and damage”; China and India agreed that an aspiration of holding warming to 1.5C could be included.

For the diplomats involved, the efforts were exhausting. The talks took a personal toll. In the months before the conference, Laurence Tubiana, appointed as special ambassador on climate change, played a key role in liaising with developing and developed countries. Then disaster struck. A week before the COP was scheduled to begin, she suffered a sudden sharp pain. It was acute appendicitis, necessitating emergency surgery. Within days, however, she had resumed her key role. When the deal was signed, she was on the podium, receiving hugs from Ban Ki-moon, Figueres, Fabius and Hollande, a recognition of the sacrifices she had made.

It is easy to forget what an extraordinary event these UN talks were. The UNFCCC is one of the last remaining forums in the world where every country, however small, is represented on the same basis and has equal say with the biggest economies. Most modern diplomacy carries on in small, self-selected groups dominated by richer countries – the G7, the G20, the OECD, Opec – but all 196 states have a seat and a say at the UNFCCC. Agreement can only be accepted by consensus.

If this makes for an unwieldy and frustrating process, it is also a fair one. The poorest countries of the world, so often left out of international consideration, are those which have done least to create climate change, but will suffer the most from it. Only at the UN are they heard.

COP21 climate change summit reaches deal in Paris

  • 13 December 2015
Media captionThe BBC’s Daniel Boettcher explains what is included in the climate change deal

A deal to attempt to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2C has been agreed at the climate change summit in Paris after two weeks of intense negotiations.

The pact is the first to commit all countries to cut carbon emissions.

The agreement is partly legally binding and partly voluntary.

Earlier, key blocs, including the G77 group of developing countries, and nations such as China and India said they supported the proposals.

President of the UN climate conference of parties (COP) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: “I now invite the COP to adopt the decision entitledParis Agreement outlined in the document.

“Looking out to the room I see that the reaction is positive, I see no objections. The Paris agreement is adopted.”

COP21: In summary

As he struck the gavel to signal the adoption of the deal, delegates rose to their feet cheering and applauding.

US President Barack Obama has hailed the agreement as “ambitious” and “historic”, but also warned against complacency.

“Together, we’ve shown what’s possible when the world stands as one,” he said.

And although admitting that the deal was not “perfect”, he said it was “the best chance to save the one planet we have”.

China’s chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua said the deal was not perfect. But he added that “this does not prevent us from marching historical steps forward”.

Nearly 200 countries took part in the negotiations to strike the first climate deal to commit all countries to cut emissions, which would come into being in 2020.

The chairman of the group representing some of the world’s poorest countries called the deal historic, adding: “We are living in unprecedented times, which call for unprecedented measures.

“It is the best outcome we could have hoped for, not just for the Least Developed Countries, but for all citizens of the world.”

Key points

The measures in the agreement included:

• To peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century

• To keep global temperature increase “well below” 2C (3.6F) and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C

• To review progress every five years

• $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future.

Analysis: The BBC’s Matt McGrath in Paris

The speeches and the cliches at the adoption of the Paris Agreement flowed like good champagne – success after all has many fathers! The main emotion is relief. The influence of the COP president, Laurent Fabius, cannot be overstated. His long diplomatic career gave him a credibility seldom matched in this arena. He used his power well.

The deal that has been agreed, under Mr Fabius, is without parallel in terms of climate change or of the environment. It sets out a clear long term temperature limit for the planet and a clear way of getting there. There is money for poor countries to adapt, there is a strong review mechanism to increase ambition over time. This is key if the deal is to achieve the aim of keeping warming well below 2C.

More than anything though the deal signifies a new way for the world to achieve progress – without it costing the Earth. A long term perspective on the way we do sustainability is at the heart of this deal. If it delivers that, it truly will be world changing.


Ahead of the deal being struck, delegates were in a buoyant mood as they gathered in the hall waiting for the plenary session to resume.

Mr Fabius was applauded as he entered the hall ahead of the announcement.

Earlier, French President Francois Hollande called the proposals unprecedented, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on negotiators to “finish the job”.

However, the celebratory mood has not been shared among all observers.

‘Almost nothing binding’

Nick Dearden, director of campaign group Global Justice Now, said: “It’s outrageous that the deal that’s on the table is being spun as a success when it undermines the rights of the world’s most vulnerable communities and has almost nothing binding to ensure a safe and liveable climate for future generations.”

Some aspects of the agreement will be legally binding, such as submitting an emissions reduction target and the regular review of that goal.

However, the targets set by nations will not be binding under the deal struck in Paris.

Observers say the attempt to impose emissions targets on countries was one of the main reasons why the Copenhagen talks in 2009 failed.

At the time, nations including China, India and South Africa were unwilling to sign up to a condition that they felt could hamper economic growth and development.

The latest negotiations managed to avoid such an impasse by developing a system of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

In these, which form the basis of the Paris agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise “well below” 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels, nations outline their plans on cutting their post-2020 emissions.

An assessment published during the two-week talks suggested that the emission reductions currently outlined in the INDCs submitted by countries would only limit global temperature rise by 2.7C.

Nick Mabey, chief executive of climate diplomacy organisation E3G, said the agreement was an ambitious one that would require serious political commitment to deliver.

“Paris means governments will go further and faster to tackle climate change than ever before,” he said.

“The transition to a low carbon economy is now unstoppable, ensuring the end of the fossil fuel age.”

Projected warming, in different scenarios
Map of temperature change


Coal lobby chief: COP21 means ‘we will be hated like slave traders’

Manifestation lors de la COP21 : Greenpeace transforme l’Arc de Triomphe en soleil. Une atteinte à l’État de droit, selon Brian Ricketts.

EXCLUSIVE / The coal industry’s European lobbying association has said that the landmark deal to cap global warming at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris means the sector “will be hated and vilified, in the same way that slave traders were once hated and vilified”.

Brian Ricketts, Secretary-General of the European Association for Coal and Lignite (Euracoal), wrote to his members, “The climate bandwagon is rolling and gathering speed such that the fossil fuel industry will spend the coming years and decades in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.”

“This is not a sustainable position and the industry should no longer acquiesce,” he added, after accusing governments and the European Commission of being “in cahoots with protest movements”.

On Saturday (12 December), world governments approved a historic agreement to cap global warming at “well below” two degrees above pre-industrial levels, and aim for 1.5 degrees in the future.

Coal is a fossil fuel that contributes to carbon emissions and global warming. Euracoal styles itself as “the voice of coal” and says it works closely with the EU institutions on policy.

The Paris agreement was greeted with scenes of celebration and emotion among delegations, who struggled for 13 days to overcome divisions between developing and developed countries.

“You might be relieved that the agreement is weak. Don’t be. The words and legal basis no longer matter,” Ricketts told his members. “Fossil fuels are portrayed by the UN as public enemy number one.”

“’Keep it in the ground’ campaigns will morph into campaigns to ‘Put it back in the ground’, watched with growing incredulity,” he predicted.

‘Global government’

“COP21 has boosted egos and made many people feel that they are engaged in something momentous,” Ricketts said after saying the deal was based on a “UN lie” about the future potential of renewables. “If emotional energy could power the planet, then COP21 has provided us with enough to keep the lights on for the next hundred years.”

It was an achievement to get the agreement between 196 nations but, Ricketts said, it was the first step to a “global government”.

Euracoal has 34 members from 20 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and Great Britain, include national coal associations, importers associations, research institutes and individual companies.

NGOs and Commission attacked

Ricketts turned his fire on NGOs, many of which demonstrated in Paris during the talks, and the European Commission, which he claimed was “outmanoeuvred” by the US at the COP21.

“The rule of law is being replaced by mob rule,” he said, after describing a Greenpeace climate protest that painted roads around the Arc de Triomphe yellow to represent the sun during the COP21.

“The ballot box is seen as an inadequate tool by those who know better than the ‘man in the street’ about complicated problems such as climate change,” wrote the Euracoal boss, after alleging that governments used NGOs, some of which they fund, to bypass the democratic purpose.

Ricketts scoffed at the idea that the European Commission had helped lead the world to the climate agreement, as it has claimed.

He told EurActiv, “The EU has been well and truly stitched up by our US friends!  Watching the Commission explain why we, in the EU, now face emission reduction targets would be entertaining, if it were not so serious.”

Ricketts said that no other countries agreed to any targets. In October 2014, EU leaders agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% compared to 1990 by 2030. They also agreed to boost renewables and energy efficiency by 27%.

“No other countries agreed to any targets.  As a minimum, the EU must, before 22 April 2016, submit a less ambitious climate plan to the UN,” Ricketts said.

In the build-up to Paris, countries submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the UN. These climate reduction pledges will be reviewed every five years under the COP21 deal.

Euracoal has lobbied for an EU greenhouse gas reduction of 30% by 2030. “We clearly don’t ‘lead the world’ and must now get back to the dull-old business of wealth creation,” Ricketts added.

Other businesses and industries have been broadly supportive of the deal in Paris. Earlier today, German business giants called on the EU to increase its 2030 targets.

Ricketts took the top job at Euracoal in August 2010. He previously worked for the International Energy Agency, as a coal analyst.

It is not the first time that Ricketts has attacked green NGOs. He recently accused the European Climate Foundation of “twisting the truth” and “undermining democracy with “money and power”.

“The trend is clear. In 2014, for the first time, renewables produced more electricity than coal in the EU. With dozens of coal plants headed for closure and more and more Europeans already producing their own renewable energy, an increasing number of companies have turned away from coal and financial institutions have stopped investing in it.“


Negotiations on climate change began in 1992, and the UN organises an annual international climate change conference called the Conference of the Parties, or COP.

Paris hosted the all-important 21st conference in December 2015. The participating states reached an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the object of which was to reduce CO2 emissions between 2008 and 2012.

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