Paris climate change talks are going well.

The Paris Climate Talks Are Going Much Better Than Expected

The Paris Climate Talks Are Going Much Better Than Expected

The Slatest
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Dec. 9 2015 10:16 PM

The Paris Climate Talks Are Going Much Better Than Expected

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The Eiffel Tower is lit up with green color and messages to prevent global warming during the first day of the United Nations climate conference in Paris, November 30, 2015.

Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Round-the-clock negotiations are currently underway in Paris with perhaps the boldest goal of any international summit of world leaders in history: a comprehensive plan to transition the world economy away from fossil fuels and prevent catastrophic climate change.

As you can imagine, there’s still a lot of disagreement over exactly how to do that—but not as much as seasoned watchers of the more-than-two-decades-long series of climate talks expected. A fresh draft of the possible agreement gained broad support during an evening plenary on Wednesday—though many countries noted serious differences remain. So-called “indaba” meetings, in which small groups of ministers work on specific portions of the text in rooms largely closed to the press, will continue to iron out the details until the conference’s scheduled close on Friday.

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This is the point where the talks get serious. Already agreed upon, importantly, is a commitment by all countries to return to the negotiating table every five years at least until mid-century in an effort to ramp up ambition—though when the first such meeting would occur is still unclear. Also gaining momentum is a potential global carbon-trading market, which could pave the way for a coordinated worldwide carbon price, the favored climate policy instrument by many economists and experts.

Still on the table: A laundry list of some of the most contentious issues and technicalities like “should” (not legally binding) vs “shall” (legally binding), turning the document into a Choose Your Own Adventure for negotiators. At the top of the list, especially for developing countries, is the preservation of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” a bedrock foundation of the more than two decades of climate talks which holds that rich, industrialized countries should bear most of the burden for steering the world economy toward sustainability. India, especially, is worried the current version of the text waters that idea down by asking too much of major developing countries that have rapidly grown their emissions over the last decade or so.

Also still on the table: Whether and how rich countries might make it financially possible for poor countries to reach their targets, for instance by buying the right to continue polluting in exchange for deeper cuts in poor countries.

There are also some seemingly egregious omissions in the latest draft. Trans-boundary emissions from aviation and shipping, for example—a huge and rapidly growing segment of the economy roughly equal in environmental impact to the entire United States—was completely left out. A section referring to “intergenerational equity” was also removed from the agreement’s preamble, though the Venezuelan negotiator responsible for that section of the text said the cut was due to “human error.”

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Despite all that’s left to decide, it’s an incredibly hopeful sign that every single country signed off on the latest version of the negotiating text (a version of which was helpfully annotated by Mashable’s Andrew Freedman). While that might not seem like much, it’s a sign that after 21 years of international climate talks, countries are eager for an agreement that’s designed to withstand decades.

One of the most interesting developments has been the emergence of a broad negotiating bloc calling itself the “high ambition coalition” and representing a majority of the world’s countries, including the United States, European Union, and dozens of small island nations and vulnerable countries from Africa. The Guardian reports the group formed in secret about six months ago, primarily to advocate for tough emissions reductions by all countries, including India and China, who are not in the coalition. As you can guess, India and China aren’t too happy.

Some observers contend the whole group is just a smokescreen, with the U.S. and E.U. trying to co-opt the moral authority of the island nations. If the cynics are right, Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now leading the U.S. delegation, surely seemed to play his part well. He went full climate hawk during a press conference on Wednesday morning, in which he pledged to double funding for poor countries at the front lines of climate change and took several sharp jabs at Republican climate skeptics back home as well as at India and China.

One of the core positions of the new coalition is a temperature target that most scientists think has now become virtually unattainable—a 1.5 degree Celsius goal that would require continental-scale reforestation and a huge scale up of effort on behalf of the U.S. and Europe. If that bold of a target has now become consensus, it may hint at substantial future efforts still to come on behalf of the world’s wealthiest countries. Even if not, it serves as a useful negotiating chip, and it looks like the final Paris agreement is likely to adopt it in some form. That’s brought almost unprecedented optimism at this late stage to talks that historically have fractured into chaos by this point.

Granted, a lot of work was completed before high-level delegations arrived in Paris: 185 of 195 countries have already committed to some form of action on climate change, and it’s virtually certain some form of legal accord will be reached. That’s a vast improvement over previous major attempts at a global climate treaty in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 and Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009.

Despite all the progress, activists in Paris aren’t happy, most notably because of failures of the U.S. and Europe to provide details consistent with their newly ramped-up rhetoric, and many groups staged a walk-out on Wednesday. Protests have flooded the city: some beautiful, some nerdy, some involving a major scientific report printed on toilet paper. The highest profile action involved several people smearing oil over the floor of the Louvre museum, resulting in 10 arrests.

Still, judging by progress so far, the Paris summit looks like it will at least eliminate the worst-case climate change scenario. Whether or not it will pave the way toward locking in the best-case scenario will of course depend on the additional action it motivates over the years to come. Still, this is going way better than it could have.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.