The climate sceptics have lost the battle

The international community reached an agreement on Saturday to show that it is serious about fighting climate change. The success of the UN climate talks in Paris took a lot of hard work – and it will be followed by even harder work in the months and years ahead. Yvonne von Hunnius reports from Paris.

While the COP 21 agreement is not perfect, it’s a huge step forward with all states recognising that something needs to be done about climate change. (Image credit: UN Photo/ Mark Garten)

While the COP 21 agreement is not perfect, it’s a huge step forward with all states recognising that something needs to be done about climate change. (Image credit: UN Photo/ Mark Garten)

“I have never seen a conference in which the states encourage each other so much,” said an advisor to the French delegation. It’s Saturday evening, the climate conference ended successfully just a few hours ago, and hardly anyone can still believe the outcome.

A result of this magnitude could not be foreseen. And it’s not just because an agreement was reached with minimal consensus, but rather that it is an agreement with relatively ambitious targets that even insiders would not have bet on.

“And now it’s happened,” said the deputy head of the Liechtenstein delegation, Sven Braden, on the way from the conference building. For the first time in history, the international community agreed to limit global mean temperature to below 2 and even 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Conference was a risk

Representatives from 195 countries and the European Union spent two weeks at a conference centre in Paris discussing and debating how to draft a follow-up agreement to 1997’s Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2020. After the colossal failure of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, many had already shelved the endeavour.

France took a risk when it offered to host this year’s conference, and its reputation was on the line. According to reports, François Hollande spent much of his time on the phone. He knew how to use the outpouring of solidarity after the terrorist attacks to reach an agreement on climate change.

The French had learned from the mistakes of the past and coordinated the process perfectly. France’s foreign minister and president of COP 21 Laurent Fabius played a central role by running a tight ship. He was first elected to parliament in 1978 and was already prime minister under François Mitterrand by the mid-eighties.

And this is also precisely what he emanates: authority gained from more than 35 years’ worth of experience in politics. Observers say it would not have been easy to walk away with a weaker agreement under his watch.

Laurent Fabius’ authority prevailed

After the touch negotiations on Saturday afternoon, the plenary convened and the vote on the final text was presented – a critical and tense moment, one when the risk is highest that some states would stand against the tide. But Fabius was beaming as he made his way across the room to the podium.

Visibly moved he said: “With this agreement you can return home today with your heads held high.” He didn’t look down to read his speech, and his confidence led some delegates to say: “When Fabius says something is done, then it’s done.”

With the draft text in the hand, it quickly became clear that the agreement isn’t perfect as it still leaves a large gap between stated ambitions and real commitments. But most of the NGOs as well as climate scientists agreed shortly after the closing session that the agreement is the better than anything else previously reached.

The Belgian climatologist on the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, said at a hastily convened media conference: “When this is agreed on, then the climate sceptics have lost their battle. All countries recognise climate change and want to do something about it.”

Real work begins at home

A huge step has been taken at the level of global politics, but the real work now begins at home. For instance, Swiss Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard said that the agreement has broad support in Switzerland, but remains sober. She later told the press: “I’m excited to see how parliament will react next year because we still have to approve it politically.”

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