The COP21 climate conference in Paris in December needs to lead to a “binding agreement” that will provide “a long-term basis for the future”, says Paul Watkinson, head of the Climate Negotiation Team of France, in an interview with Energy Post. “We cannot continue negotiating. We need to decide on something that will last and will become stronger as time goes on”. But Watkinson warns that COP21 will “not solve everything.” It will also be “a place where we think about the future, not just about the text of an agreement”.
Despite having his arm in a sling, Paul Watkinson still appears fairly relaxed for a man who will increasingly have the eyes of the world focused on him – as the clock will be ticking towards the UN climate conference that will take place in Paris from Monday 30 November to Friday 11 December. Speaking at a conference organised by the French Committee of the World Energy Council (WEC) on 12-13 March in Paris, he says he has every intention to “finish COP21 on Friday [11 December] at 6 p.m.” It will be a small miracle if he achieves that.
Watkinson, who studied at Trinity College at Cambridge as well as the equally prestigious Ecole nationale d’administration in Strasbourg, and who has dual French-British nationality, is a climate veteran. He has been a climate negotiator for France since 2000 and head of the French delegation to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since 2007. He attended 16 of the 20 annual COPs (conference of the parties) that have taken place so far. Now, representing host country France, he is faced with the daunting task of ensuring that the all-important COP-21 will deliver on the promise made in Durban in 2011 “to adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change as soon as possible, and no later than 2015.” At all costs the failure of the infamous COP-19 meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 needs to be avoided.
But Watkinson’s ambition reaches further. In his keynote speech for the WEC conference he said he not only wants a binding agreement – he also stressed that this agreement should be “something that will last and that will become stronger as time goes on”. At the same time it must be “flexible enough to adjust to changing circumstances, something that we can revisit every five or ten years without the need to replace it”.
France has set up a special Ministerial Team to prepare the ground for the negotiations under the authority of Climate Ambassador Laurence Tubiana, who is also the Special Representative for Climate Negotiations for Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who will chair the COP21.“And we are not doing this alone”, said Watkinson. “We work with other countries, such as Peru. An American and an Algerian are in charge of the text.”
One of the big challenges for the French team is that the agreement “will have to be adopted by everyone. There are no voting rules. The Chair has to bring about a consensus”.
The negotiations will focus on four components, Watkinson explained. First, there is the agreement itself. “Will it be a protocol? Something else? We don’t know that yet.” But “it will have to be based on previous agreements and include rules on transparency, accountability and compliance”. The “central framework” of the agreement will be the two-degree target (i.e. to limit the global average temperature increase to below 2 °C compared to pre-industrial levels).
Secondly, the agreement will have to specify the national contributions and commitments needed to achieve the target. “Everybody must be able to contribute”, said Watkinson. “Not just the big emitters”. One of the persistent criticisms of the Kyoto protocol, adopted in 1997, is that it only imposes binding obligations on a limited number of countries.
The third component will be the financing of the deal. A Green Climate Fund has already been set up which now has $10 billion, but, said Watkinson, “we need to go further. We have already agreed that we need to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020. The Green Climate Fund is just part of that. The money will have to come from many other sources, both private and public”.
The fourth component concerns the so-called “Agenda of Solutions”, which represents initiatives aimed at supplementing the agreement. These “bring together governments and non-State players to support and amplify the commitments of countries”.
With regard to carbon pricing, Watkinson said that setting a price on carbon would send a clear signal to redirect investment, but added that he does not believe COP21 will achieve a global carbon price. “Carbon pricing will result from national or regional policies that will be ecnouraged by the agreement. We also want to facilitate links between those systems.”
After his presentation, Energy Post had the opportunity to ask Watkinson some additional questions.
Do you regard COP21 as a beginning or as end?
“As both. In December 1990 the UN General Assembly decided to start negotiations on a climate convention. So Paris is exactly 25 years later. This cycle of 25 years has been largely given over to negotiations, negotiations, negotiatons – with some implementation. That is not how we can continue. We now need to decide on something with a solid basis of going forward, a framework in which people can act. In that sense we are the end of a phase. But it’s even more a start. COP21 will also be a place where we can think about the future, not just about the text [of the agreement].”
Would you like to get rid of the COPs [the annual climate conferences]?
“I’d love to! I attended 16. I would love to end them one day. They are considered an enormous global circus where people keep saying the same things. I think we need to make them more effective. How do we make sure the collaboration moves faster? But I also would like to note that it does not do justice to the COPs if you focus only on the outcome. Last year in Lima we had a whole day on action, on mobilizing business, local governments, regions. We need people to put pressure on us, that’s fine, but we also need to look at how the meetings make things change, at the messages from the business community, the energy community, cities. All of them are involved in this longer-term transformation.”
Many in the energy industry say that fossil fuels will continue to dominate the energy supply until 2050 and beyond, and consequently the 2 °C target is simply not achievable. Do you feel you are getting enough support from the energy sector?
“The IEA [International Energy Agency] has clearly said what is needed to achieve the 2 °C target. That is going to be very difficult. I don’t underestimate that. Other operators have their own interests. The energy industry has a lot of assets in the fossil fuel sector. And it’s logical they want to maintain their position. But what is interesting is the changes compared to a few years ago. The enormous reductions in cost of solar and wind. They are now mainstream. Where are we going with storage? How will other technologies develop? If you put that on the table, it’s not as simple as: is it fossil or not? The question is: where are the choices going to be in 10 years’ time? If we are in a world where we are seriously moving to decarbonisation, to net zero emissions, even if it’s not until 2070 or 2080, we are still going to have to reach that stage. What does that mean for investment? For the choices people will make? The opportunities that are there? I am not saying it’s going to be easy. And I don’t expect everyone to share the view on where we are going. But I think the opportunities are there for those who want to seize them.”
Do you think the world will be left with large ‘stranded assets’ – i.e. reserves of coal, gas and oil that are on balance sheets now but will need to be left in the ground?
“It’s an issue which is getting a lot of attention. And when something like this comes to the fore, we need to think about it. There are trillions of investment in the energy sector that need to be made over the coming decades. How are you going to do that if there is a constraint on greenhouse gas emissions? You have to think about this in the long term. Whether ‘stranded assets’ is the right term for the problem – you can have a long debate on that.”
Is there a danger that expectations for COP21 are too high?
“COP21 can’t solve everything. It can put in place long-lasting arrangements which will help us move forward. It can send signals about where we are going. On a national and international level. For business, for cities. Everyone can put their commitments on the table and say where they see things going. When you put those things together you get a much clearer sense of direction. It’s one thing having the UNFCCC coming in and saying we will need to be in a world where emissions are net zero, but companies, countries, cities have to prepare for that future.”
The agreement expected to be made in Paris will only take effect in 2020. Isn’t there a danger that there will be a rush to produce as much fossil fuels as possible before the agreement takes effect?
“I don’t think that’s the way the world works. I think the question is how do people start to prepare for something that’s going to be there? And there is work going on as well which will take effect before 2020. Collaborative processes are at the heart of this. Collaborations on energy efficiency, renewables, forestry. This will be part of the longer-term solution as well.”
The agreement is supposed to be legally binding. What does that mean exactly? Who would do the binding?
“We sometimes get very worked up by single terms. This is a good example. What we are talking about is an international agreement which has existence in international law. It has some bindingness on states who sign it and ratify it. It’s important to make clear this is not just a one-off agreement that can be changed next year. But bindingness can mean many different things. It could mean you have consequences, penalties, if you don’t meet your targets. Or it can mean that you can work together and facilitate people do so. We need to break it down and understand it. A legal agreement is needed. The format needs to be adapted to what the international community collectively wants. There are constraints in different countries on what they can do. We need to find something which is workable, realistic, useful and that will deliver long-term predictability.”