Miguel Arias Cañete: briefing on the state of climate change negotiations

Brussels: Let me now turn to the main topic of my intervention today, which is to update you about climate talks ahead of the Paris conference. In just over 100 days, we will meet in Paris for one of the most important events of the year: the adoption of a new global climate change agreement. The Paris conference is a historic milestone: a unique opportunity to accelerate the shift to a low-carbon, climate-resilient global economy.

But the window of opportunity to meet our target of keeping the global temperature rise below 2 degrees is closing fast. And as late as last week, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres warned that the contributions that countries have put on the table may not take us to the two degrees.

So now the question here is what we are going to do about it. With just 10 negotiating days left until we meet in Paris and the next session in Bonn at the end of the month, we need to focus on three important points:

  • First, technical negotiations must go faster;
  • Second, more countries must come forward with ambitious contributions;
  • And third, and perhaps most importantly, we need to define the key elements for success in Paris.

Let me start with the first point: the slow pace of the negotiations.

It is clear to me from recent gatherings − the G7, the Major Economies Forum, the Paris informal ministerial, the International Conference on Financing for Development and many other bilateral meetings − that there is strong political will to reach an ambitious global climate agreement. We have seen momentum steadily building in Europe and beyond with more and more countries following Europe's lead. In this context, the recent announcement by United States to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants is another positive step forward and provides further impetus ahead of the Paris summit.

The Paris Agreement is on the agenda of major upcoming meetings such as the United Nations General Assembly in September which will adopt the proposed Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, the World Bank and the IMF meeting in October, and the G20 gathering in November, to name a few. And rightly so.

But in the negotiating rooms, progress has been painfully slow. The technical talks are seriously lagging behind the political discussion. This must change.

On 26 July, the two co-chairs guiding the United Nations negotiations presented an improved text as a basis for negotiations at the August session. This was an important step forward to focus the negotiations. And I hope that it will provide the necessary impetus to accelerate progress in the talks.

When it comes to the structure, we now have a more logically structured text that begins to separate the draft agreement from a set of more technical accompanying draft decisions. When it comes to the substance, the text is still far too long, with all options put forward by countries earlier this year still on the table. This will need to be negotiated. So we have a lot of work ahead of us.

Negotiators will need to get straight down to the substance in August. They will need to start looking for areas of convergence and identify issues that will need to be resolved by Ministers. These include differentiation of the responsibilities and capabilities of the countries, the legal form of the agreement, the transfer of technology or support to developing countries, to mention just a few. This will require all countries to show flexibility in their positions and a willingness to seek compromise and move beyond their comfort zones.

Moving on to my second point: the countries' contributions.

To achieve the below 2 degrees objective, every country has a part to play, no matter how small. The European Union was the first major economy to submit its contribution in March – a binding, economy-wide emissions reduction target of at least 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. This is the most ambitious contribution presented to date. The good news is that, after a slow start, more and more countries are submitting their contributions: so far, 56 countries representing 61% of current global emissions.

And this is progress if you compare it to the current system - the 2nd commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – where only 35 countries representing 14% of global emissions have targets. The contributions have not just come from the biggest emitters – including China, the United States and the European Union – but also from some of the most vulnerable countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

But the not so good news is that the current contributions still represent only around a quarter of all countries Key G20 countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey must submit their intended contributions without delay. 

We must have a clear idea of the aggregate effort before we meet in Paris and where we stand with regards to the below 2 degrees objective. This is why the European Commission and Morocco - the next presidency of the climate negotiations - will host an international forum on 12 and 13 October in Rabat. The goal is to exchange views on the aggregate efforts of the contributions before Paris and discuss what we can do to stay on track to the 2 degrees objective over time.

And my last point, and perhaps most importantly, Paris needs to send a credible signal to the world that governments are serious about fighting climate change. The world will agree a global climate deal in Paris this year. Of that, I have no doubt. The question is whether that deal will be enough.

So what are the main elements to call Paris a success? To me, these are four:

  • First, a high level of mitigation ambition: those countries with the greatest responsibilities and capabilities are expected to make the most ambitious mitigation commitments. For the Paris Agreement to be effective, we need all the big emitters on board.
  • Second, a dynamic review to strengthen ambition over time. Scientists have warned us. The United Nations has warned us. We have to be prepared for the possibility of gap between what is on the table in Paris and what science requires. This is one of the reasons why countries should come together regularly every five years to consider and strengthen emissions targets in light of the latest science and progress made to date.
  • Third, a long-term goal: we need to know the destination of travel. We need to know how and when we need to increase the ambition to meet the long-term goal. That's why we need the Paris Agreement to: reaffirm the 2 degree Celsius objective; and include a long-term target to collectively reduce global emissions by at least 60% by 2050 compared to 2010 and be near zero or below by 2100.
  • And four, transparency and accountability rules: We have to be sure that the deal we make in Paris will be about actions rather than words. Nationally determined targets must be backed by multilaterally agreed rules on transparency and accountability.

Without these there will be no trust or confidence that countries will deliver what they have committed to, nor will we be able to track collective progress towards our goals.
As you all know, the European Union also strongly favours targets that will be internationally legally binding. It is no secret that like the United States a number of countries are reluctant to agree to some forms of binding deal. It is up to these countries to demonstrate a convincing alternative that gives the necessary long-term signal that citizens, markets and decision makers need.

In conclusion, if the agreement covers all these elements – high level of ambition, a process for raising ambition at later date, a long-term goal, transparency and accountability rules and legal certainty, – I will stand before you the day after Paris conference and say that Paris has been a success. To get there, we must accelerate the pace of work at the August and October United Nations negotiating sessions and bridge the gap between the technical and political process.

The world is waiting for a new global climate change agreement. We must deliver.

  • Remarks by EU Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete at a press briefing, Brussels, 20 August 2015.