French may no longer be the language of international diplomacy, but French diplomats have not lost their touch.
The Paris climate deal reached at the weekend is a testament to their skill and endurance.
Many environmental activists and experts, among them the British climate economist Lord Stern, have been effusive in their praise for the French delegation led by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
According to Lord Stern “they have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.”
What Fabius, his colleague, Environment Minister Ségolène Royale, and their team have pulled off is the first ever agreement that all countries – rich or poor, developed or developing – will take action to tackle climate change by reducing their carbon emissions and reversing the deforestation and environmental degradation that is depriving the planet of its ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere naturally.
Of course, France did not do it alone.
At a time when the international system – and the United Nations in particular – has been written off by many as incapable of achieving the consensus needed for decisive action over conflicts like Syria and Ukraine, the success in Paris is a welcome reminder that the international community is capable of coming together for the common good.
The deal has allowed a rare moment of optimism over the climate change, which has been reinforced by research just published suggesting carbon emissions could have stalled this year despite the global economy growing.
The climate accord also builds on the momentum of September’s agreement by all UN members to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.
It’s a far cry from six years ago in Copenhagen when the last attempt to get all countries on board in the fight against climate change fell apart amongst rancour and recrimination between the world’s major powers – particularly China and the United States.
So it’s no coincidence that another of the contributors to success in Paris was the growing climate cooperation between Washington and Beijing which became public last year during President Obama’s visit to China and was reaffirmed a few weeks ago during President Xi’s visit to the US where the two leaders announced a shared vision for the Paris talks as well as how their countries would cut carbon emissions.
In the US, President Obama has broken with his predecessor’s skepticism – some might say cynicism – over climate change action and made it a signature issue of his second term. But given the Republican Party’s control of Congress, Obama has had to use executive powers, not legislation, to take action.
One of the key features of the Paris deal is how the French and UN negotiators were willing to work around the American President’s political obstacles and produce an agreement that would not have to be ratified by the US Senate.
That’s why the Paris accord avoids a legal commitment by countries to actually cut emissions. Instead countries have submitted voluntary plans of how they will reduce emissions and fight climate change called – in UN-speak – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.
The voluntary nature of these central commitments has been criticized as a major weakness of the deal, so in order to try to ensure countries keep their promises, the agreement legally requires all states to monitor their emissions performance and to come together every five years to review their progress.
The idea being that global peer pressure will encourage countries to do their bit.
Another obvious weakness of the deal is that, as things stand, when you total up all the INDCs it does not add up to preventing a temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius, which most climate scientists agree is the tipping point where global warming will produce catastrophic climate change.
There is an aspiration in the preamble to the agreement to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees and the hope is the five-year review process and peer pressure will lead to countries committing to ever-deeper emissions cuts as they go along.
UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon – another leader who has made climate change a signature issue – described Paris as “a truly historic moment”.
It could be – if countries follow through.
What we can say for sure is that Paris has given humanity a fighting chance in the battle against climate change and for that a lot of the credit should go to France.