How the deal was done

Much of my work is about the transition to a low carbon economy. This gave me the perfect opportunity to persuade my husband (he needed little persuading) that we should spend a five days in Paris at the time of the UN climate negotiations in December.

Paris is always lovely, but it was also an exciting time.

Initially expectations for the Paris climate negotiations were low. The big climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009 was billed as “make-or-break” but had collapsed in acrimony and accusations of arrogance, and little progress seemed to have been made since. However as the time of the Paris conference drew near, there were the first signs that this time it might be different. Everyone was on tenterhooks until literally the last moment, when the deal was finally agreed by 195 nations. This was an astounding achievement, and the deal was far stronger than anyone had dared hope.

Most people in business are faced with the problem of how to get disparate powerful groups to agree on things, so I find it interesting to look at why Paris was so much more successful than Copenhagen.

The first factor in its success was superb diplomacy, based around the principles of openness, flexibility and trust.

After the failure of Copenhagen, the UN appointed Christiana Figueres as their new Climate Head. An experienced Costa Rican diplomat, she was determined to make the process more transparent and more inclusive. She also brought an unwavering focus on the need for emissions cuts, much to the annoyance of some in the fossil fuels industry.

As the Paris conference approached, the French did a lot of preparation, determined that it would be a success. They used their embassies to understand what made individual countries tick. They designed an approach based around the idea that every country has its own national interests and needs the flexibility to align the desirable with the doable. They had a strategy, and a succession of backup plans in case things didn’t work out.

Personal relationships matter, so I’m told the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius learnt all the delegates names. They put the “problem children” in charge of the groups looking at difficult areas, so they couldn’t “throw rocks at it”. They instituted a series of talks where delegates could talk “from the heart” to French diplomats with no holds barred and in total privacy. They made sure their delegation’s area in the negotiation space was immediately next to the UN’s , so Laurent Fabius and Christiana Figueres, could be talking within minutes. They installed beds, so their diplomats could catch some sleep during what rapidly became 24 hour negotiations.

In complete contrast to Copenhagen, the French adopted a principle of flexibility, so rather than trying to force sovereign countries into a binding deal, each country was invited to define what it could do: in jargon its “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” or INDCs . Some of these are pathetic (Pakistan’s is one page), others are significant documents, backed by legal force.

Peer pressure was skilfully used. For example, Saudi Arabia had been trying to block progress, until the other countries in the Arab block started speaking out about what it was doing, because its position was so embarrassing. (It was claiming to be poor, and asking for compensation for loss of future oil income)

It was agreed that this is the start of a process, rather than a make-or-break event, so countries will review their contributions (their INDCs) every 5 years and steadily ratchet them up. This approach has worked successfully in other international treaties, from protecting the ozone layer to trade deals. Given the combination of peer pressure and the pace with which costs of solar, storage and nuclear power are falling, many commentators think the INDCs will be significantly strengthened at the first review in 2023.

It also helped that the time was right. Since Copenhagen, the science had become ever stronger. Big global businesses were calling for action, as was the Pope. The finance sector was becoming increasingly concerned about carbon bubble risks. The Divestment movement was growing in strength. Lawyers were worrying about litigation. Air pollution, heat waves, floods, droughts and generally weird weather were all helping raise the underlying sense that something was going wrong.

In parallel with this, low carbon alternatives were steadily seeming easier and less scary. The costs of renewables and storage were plummeting. Economic growth had started to decouple from carbon emissions.

The result was that by the end of the fortnight in Paris, although no-one had everything they wanted, everyone had something and none of the 195 countries wanted to be the one to block the deal.

The deal has it’s imperfections, but I think Paris will be seen as a genuinely historic trigger for action. Now we just need to get on and do it.

As they say, you either make history, or become history.


Published in Cambridge Business Feb 2016