The first day of COP21 has been a flurry of press conferences and announcements. The scale of the conference is enormous: many meetings operated simultaneously and ran overtime. The ADP – the body tasked in 2011 with guiding the Parties towards agreement by COP21 deadline – reconvened to discuss procedural matters. The current draft text still has hundreds of square brackets (contested points) so there will be a lot of ground to cover. The ADP’s mandate is to streamline the draft text into a number of clear, concise options by the end of the first week (Saturday the 5th). Today’s ADP session scheduled a number of spin-off negotiating groups to deal with all of the key remaining issues (such as loss and damage, finance, etc) in time. Many of these will operate simultaneously, with negotiators unaware of what is going on in other rooms.

At the ADP session, COP21 President Laurent Fabius also noted the need for transparency and acknowledged the role of civil society observers at the negotiations. This is important after the October’s ADP session, where civil society were excluded from the plenary on the first day. Nonetheless, some Parties have still expressed concern about the lack of inclusiveness at COP21. A member of the Venezualan delegation was unable to pass through the plenary room entrance, and the Tuvalu delegation commented that they were unaware of informal meetings already taking place.

The conference itself was opened with a speeches by Manuel Pulgar-Vidal (president of COP20). He delivered a strong positive message about the political momentum leading into Paris, the tabled INDCs, and work of the ADP. Fabius followed him with an optimistic message: success is not assured but it is “within our grasp”, and the French hosts will do everything to reach a compromise. Prince Charles of Wales spoke eloquently about the grave threat of climate change, and how the cost of change is a “necessary premium” on a “long term insurance policy.” These speeches set the tone for the rest of the day.

The main course was the Leaders Event, hosted in two plenary rooms simultaneously, which was marked with sweeping and often optimistic political rhetoric. It can be streamed in parts on the UNFCCC’s website(hereherehere and here). Flanking these were a number of NGO press briefings from CAN internationalUSCAN, and the WWF. Various heads of state also held press briefings, such as the Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform Communique Presentation, the Head of State Media Event on Carbon Pricing, and the Launch of the International Solar Alliance.

Head of State Speeches

At Copenhagen in 2009, Head of States arrived at the end of the conference to “try and stop a sinking ship.” This is no longer the case: countries have arrived engaged and ready.

Like the opening speakers, most Heads of State spoke with ambition and cautious optimism. Among the political rhetoric and various reiterations of INDC positions, many leaders did in fact bring new announcements and initiatives to the table.

The event began with French President Hollande. He did not tiptoe around the reality of “disappearing” island states and immediately called for INDC commitments to be reviewed every five years.

Barack Obama spoke early, and continued to take a leadership role relative to the USA’s previous positions. He referenced new commitments to clean investments in both the States and the private sector, new investments into the Least Developed Country Adaptation Fund, and alluded to the US joining a risk insurance initiative. US Climate Action Network noted that “[Obama] understands US needs to bring more to the table here at Paris to make the deal what it needs to be.”

Developing countries, in general, both appealed for help but expressed a firm desire to be part of the solution.

Many explicitly assigned ongoing blame to large emitters nations. Mr. Hernández, President of Honduras asked “how much money is enough to satisfy your greed for profit?” Nevertheless, he pointed to his countries emissions decreases and rapid shift to renewables. This was followed with demands for legally binding INDCs, REDD+ and Loss and Damage mechanisms.

The scale of some of the challenges faced by some nations were clear. President Sall of Senegal, a nation which battles desertification, noted that Africa alone needs $7-15 billion USD a year for adaptation. Large developing nations such as South Africa noted the need to take into account food security poverty eradication.

President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Damodardas Modi of India also showed the tensions in large developing nations. India needs to meet the needs of 1.25 billion people, 300 million of whom are without access to energy. But despite India’s arguably necessary short term reliance on coal, Modi asserted an ambitious greenhouse reduction target: (33-35% reductions on 2005 levels by 2030 and a transition to 40% non-fossil fuels). Alongside France, India is heading the Solar Alliance, which aims to mobilise more than $1 trillion USD by 2030. Like most developing nations, India also called for equity and binding loss and damage provisions.

China similarly spoke of charting a clear choice for green development. While Jinping was clear to reference that developed countries should have the most obligations in this agreement, the WWF noted that China’s INDC does go beyond what is required for a developing country and is “evolving the greater regime in a de facto way.” Their internal five year plan is ecologically focused, includes over 100 mitigation, adaptation and capacity building projects. They have also pledged over $3.1 billion dollars in ‘South-South finance’, supporting Least Developed Countries and Small island states. Jinping also met with Obama, expressing the desire to co-operate with the worlds other largest emitter.

President Tong of Kiribati’s rousing speech was emblematic of many of the “frontline” vulnerable developing nations and low-lying island states. He called for an inclusive agreement, and noted that Fiji has compassionately “undertaken to accommodate our people… in the event that climate change renders our home uninhabitable.”

Developed nations for the most part answered the challenge. British Prime Minister David Cameron called for binding legal mechanisms, five year reviews, measures to monitor and verify the agreement, and financing provisions which helped the most vulnerable countries. Even nations which had previously dragged their feet were uncharacteristically optimistic. The recently elected Prime Minister Trudeau noted that “Canada is back, my good friends”, putting climate change as “top priority” and made a strong case for Carbon Pricing at the Media event. Even Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia showed a symbolic change in direction by ratifying the Kyoto Protocols’ second commitment period.

Geopolitical overlap

Given November’s Paris attacks, terrorism was understandably on everyones minds. The opening speakers and majority of the leaders began with expressions of solidarity. Many, including COP21 president Laurent Fabius, characterised climate change and terrorism as the “two challenges of our time.” Others such as Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga of Tuvalu went as far as connecting the link between the impacts of climate change and radicalism. In Fuad Masum, the President of Iraq’s speech, climate change almost seemed an afterthought to his discussion of combatting terrorism.

Bringing so many global leaders together brought with it an inevitable overlap with geopolitics. Russian President Putin refused to be part of the “class photo” with “the shooter” (Turkish President Erdoğan, ). Palestinian President Abbass cited continued Israeli occupation and “violation of international law” as one of the main challenges facing Palestine in its quest to tackle climate change.

It is no surprise that an issue of this scale brings with it the tensions of complex international relations. With that in mind, converging political viewpoint on climate change is encouraging.

Common themes

Overall, the vast majority of Leaders presented a strong front at the event. The clear focus was on energy systems and the transition to renewables (and corresponding transition from fossil subsidies to carbon pricing), as well as supporting developing nations.

A number of important climate change related concepts received only brief attention however.

The President of Chile, Ms. Michelle Bachelet (out of place on the timetable’s long line of “His Excellency”s) appropriately emphasised the need for a gender dimension to this issue – “females are both victims and solutions” in climate change.

There were some few references made to land use/forestry, agriculture, and food waste – all of which are large parts of the greenhouse equation – but these issues largely took a back seat to energy. Tuesday the 1st of December is scheduled to be the day on forestry/land use pledges, so the issue will receive further attention then.

There was also occasional reference to desertification and biodiversity, both of which are related to climate change but enshrined in separate United Nations conventions, with respective Conference of the Parties Systems. The fragmented nature of these institutions perhaps limits the focus on the the broader implications of climate change.

International aviation and maritime transport, and their respective emissions footprint, generally escaped reference.

Side Events

Political announcements

Alongside the Solar Alliance announcement, two other key side events were the primary Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform Communique Presentation and the Heads of State Event on Carbon Pricing. Both of these represented coalitions of Parties attempting to create a clear roadmap and market signals moving forward after Paris.

Globally, nearly US$500 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies is provided to keep domestic prices for oil gas coal artificially low for consumers. The Prime Minister of Norway framed these subsidies as “the opposite to climate finance.” They are also enormous in scale compared to their counterpart: the Paris agreement is aiming for a post 2020 climate finance goal of only $100 billion a year. The Communique, lead by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, argues that OECD nations should commit to a joint endeavour to phase out these subsidies. To maintain them alongside the Paris agreement would be “schizophrenic.” The challenge is that people are used to low oil prices, although various panel members noted that globally low oil prices provide a “timely window” for the transition. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figeuras noted that the Communique was an important step in dispelling the myth that carbon emissions and economic growth must be chosen between. The WWF noted in their press event that global carbon emissions (which are of course related to energy) have stalled for two years in a row, and are hopeful about the trend.

A similar push came in the Carbon Pricing event, which involved many governments such as Germany, France, Canada and Mexico. The idea here was not to impose a “one size fits all” manner of setting a price for carbon. Instead what they wanted to promote was the setting up and developing of instruments such as carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes that will little by little change models and transition the globe to a low carbon economy. Carbon pricing is not within the legal mandate of the UNFCCC so there might not be a specific indication in the final agreement, but it is “something that no climate negotiation can go without” and is thus a “role for leaders” to promote. The panel, dubbed a “dream come true” by Hollande, was ultimately a strong political message.

A common theme across these two meetings was the involvement of business leaders and bodies such as the World Bank. The consistent message from the private sector is that clear price signals are important. Carbon prices and removals of subsidies are politically palatable if they are clearly communicated, begin gently, and are ramped up with a clear trajectory. Sweden and British Columbia were cited as effective examples.


Day one of COP21 brought with it many political announcements and an ostensibly strong show of leadership from all major Parties to the UNFCCC. Of course, political rhetoric is not the final say of the matter, but a clear convergence of political willpower is an encouraging sign.

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