French diplomacy, the Paris Agreement, and the structural power of the COP President

“He got a decent deal and everyone said they liked him”, was ClimateHome’s pithy assessment of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 climate summit in Paris. Other reports concurred, praising France’s successful management of the final days and hours of the summit to bring COP21 to a close with the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

“Mr Fabius and the formidable French diplomatic machine steered the conference to a successful conclusion”, said the FT, while others highlighted the personal investment of time through the many visits that Fabius had made to China, India and Saudi Arabia to build trust and confidence. Laurence Tubiana, France’s ambassador and envoy for climate change appointed by Fabius to steer the French diplomatic effort, also received a name check, as did France’s network of foreign missions spread throughout the world and their public outreach in the year leading up to COP21.

This due attention to the role of the French chairmanship and presidency of the conference, however, highlights an interesting and curious feature of this UNFCCC intergovernmental negotiating process, where the conference host holds a privileged and pivotal political position in directing the final outcome of the meeting. (This probably seems utterly self-evident and unremarkable to others who follow the process – but which I think is reason to step back for a moment). 

COP21 President Laurent Fabius brings down his green gavel. Photo via 'COP Paris' flickr, public domain.

COP21 President Laurent Fabius brings down his green gavel. Photo via, public domain.

The authority to propose
In a previous post I wrote about how it is not parties who ultimately ‘hold the pen’ in actually drafting and writing the final outcomes, but the chair. At the annual COP meetings where the most contentious issues are finalised, this task is handed over to the conference host, who is then responsible for producing proposals that serve as final compromises acceptable to all, presented as a package.

The ‘authority to propose’ that the COP President possesses is a distinct form of power – agenda-setting power, to set the terms of the debate. The COP President has the discretion to propose and experiment with the methods of work that influence the character and content of discussions – such as the in-session indabas at COP21, tasking small spin-off groups, or appointing facilitators; or larger scheduling decisions, notably such as front-loading the COP21 Leader’s Event for Paris, as opposed to the previous back-end practice that puts it in sync with the normal high-level ministerial segment. While all parties have, of course, the ability to make proposals at any time, the COP President is endowed with a special legitimacy to do so.

It is, in short, a role of considerable structural importance in understanding the way in which the UNFCCC process delivers its outcomes to govern intergovernmental action on climate change. It is from the COP President where judgements about which pronounced ‘red lines’ are the ones that really matter to induce agreement, where the political effort to broker, cajole (and even coerce) acceptance of an agreement is made, and where the all-important decision on when to bring the final gavel down, and declare a consensus, is made.

None of the three iterations of the draft Paris Agreement presented by the French during the final week were ‘put on the screen’ for a line-by-line resolution of brackets and options. Instead, after comments aired and further revisions suggested by parties, returned to the black box of the French presidency to make the judgement about what to change, and presented afresh for further rinse-and-repeating.

This method of work is, for better or worse, the current social practice, part and parcel of the negotiating culture of the UNFCCC process. Indeed, the intervention of the COP President in making that compromise proposal is anticipated at the outset, leaving countries often unwilling to budge from their positions in the ‘technical’ preparatory work. Unlike many other travelling multilateral conferences that journey beyond the seats of their secretariats, the COP Presidency is anything but a ceremonial role, requiring a considerable political investment by the host country.

A “Proposal by the President”


Deep pockets
And yet, at the same time, this pivotal political role is one for which the first criteria is a logistical one: whether that country can comfortably host a conference of 10,000+ attendees (as in ‘normal’ recent years), or more like 30,000+ for marquee years such as 2015. The UNFCCC secretariat estimates the cost of hosting a COP meeting at €35-150 million, which is entirely borne by the host country. France’s provisional budget for COP21 was €187m, which will have surely further increased with additional security measures after the November 13 attacks. Peru, the host of the COP20 meeting in Lima, needed a €5m contribution from the EU to host the meeting.

This logistical prerequisite rules out a vast number of countries from assuming the political leadership role of the COP President – certainly, at a minimum, no least developed country and most small island states. The result is that that moderately deep pockets, probably of at least being a middle-income country, are required to host the COP in order to be able to exercise that political, agenda-setting discretion on what kind of agreement to propose. There is a quite profound inequality of opportunity going on here.

From working group chair to COP President
It is worth dwelling on this misfit between logistical capability and political opportunity for a couple of reasons. The first is that this is not a element of the UNFCCC process that has always been around, but part of its evolution at some point in the past 15 years of negotiations. In reflecting on the Paris Agreement’s significance, it is notable that in the agreement of its predecessor, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Japanese hosts of the conference were broadly absent from the cut-and-thrust final phase of negotiations. Instead, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Berlin Mandate was chaired throughout its entire 1995-1997 lifespan by Raul Estrada-Oyuela of Argentina, and whose judgement and nerve in gavelling through agreement of key areas of contention receives regular mention in the academic literature

Similarly, the Framework Convention on Climate Change itself was agreed at the final meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in May 1992, such that the document was closed in advance of the Rio Earth Summit itself. The INC had been presided over throughout only by Jean Ripert of France, with no conference ‘host’ to turn to, as the INC, had been generally hosted at various UN conference hubs.

By contrast, after handing over their working document mid-way through COP21 that they had shepherded through four-and-a-half negotiating meetings in 2015, the two co-chairs of the Durban Platform AWG, Ahmed Djoghlaf and Dan Reifsnyder, the final pair in the merry-go-round of ADP co-chairs, were largely absent from the podium and public eye.

At some point in the past 15 years, there has been a distinct transfer of authority from the working group chairman to the COP President.

Intergovernmental arrangements
The second is that this dual-role of both logistical host and political broker is up for discussion in the next couple of years, recognising the intensive demands of hosting the COP. Under the jargon-banner of ‘intergovernmental arrangements’, a slow-burning SBI discussion on the organisation of the COP that has been going for the past few years will now look to be more intensively addressed, following the shift into an ‘implementation’ phase of work as opposed to full-blown political negotiations culminating in the Paris Agreement.

(This segment of discussions is also looking at when the COP President is elected, a procedure normally undertaken at the beginning of the COP. This election means, however, that the incoming COP President actually has no formal role in the meetings preceding the COP – as in all of 2015 up to the beginning of COP21 for France – when a lot of the political expectations and potential areas of compromise are actually being socialised).

One of the more interesting possibilities being mooted (another idea is a shift to biennial rather than annual COPs) is to divorce the hosting responsibilities from the political position of the COP presidency. This would see COPs being rotated between host countries and the UNFCCC’s conference facilities in Bonn, Germany – which would allow for a country to take on the role of the COP President without the commensurate logistical demands. (see para.38-44 of this SBI42 document). Could one of the ‘particularly vulnerable’ small countries thus find themselves holding the pen and being responsible for the gavel, hitherto an impossibility?

(In fact, this has happened twice before, inadvertently – COP2 was supposed to be hosted by Uruguay (21/CP.1), but it later withdrew and Zimbabwe served as the president for COP2, which was convened in Geneva; Jordan initially offered to host COP5 in 1999, but also later withdrew (see para.12 of the SBI10 report), and Poland served as the president for COP5, which was convened in Bonn).

The ADP is dead, long live the APA
In the meantime, until a decision is made, the travelling COP continues, on to Marrakesh in November 2016, and the Asia-Pacific the following year. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform will now be replaced by the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement, in all likelihood with a protracted argument over chairing arrangements similar to that experienced by the ADP at its first session in June 2012. These chairs will guide further tricky details that still need to be agreed on (set out in 1/CP.21) to be able to implement the Paris Agreement when it enters into force. The real hotseat, however, to broker agreement and maintain momentum on climate action, will continue to be that of the COP Presidency. And to take on that role, first, host the COP.

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