Friday, 5 February 2016

COP 21 – Managing complex international negotiations

The Paris Climate Agreement, adopted by 195 States in Paris on 12 December 2015, at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) of the United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is certainly a victory for its host country, France. Observing the negotiations from the side-lines, as observer organisations did not have access to the negotiation room, I found the set-up of the conference, led by its President Laurent Fabius, fascinating, in particular seeing it from the angle of change management. This article comments on what was done in Paris to bring states so divergent in their opinions to an agreement. 

The COP 21 – also called the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference – took place in Le Bourget near Paris from 30 November to 12 December 2015. The Paris Agreement was finally adopted in the early evening of the 12th. The Agreement will be deposited at the UN in New York and be opened on 22 April 2016 – Mother Earth Day – for one year (till 21 April 2017) for signatures by states. The agreement will enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.

The draft agreement and decision document shared at the end of the first week of COP 21 was 43-page long and with hundreds of brackets indicating text still to be agreed. Considering the ambitious aim of finding an agreement that is legally binding, balanced and far-reaching, managing negotiations between 195 countries over two weeks seemed extremely challenging for the COP 21 Presidency and the UN.

In my view, it was a clever move of Fabius to set up at least three levels of negotiations: On the highest level, an Indaba-style meeting for parties to speak openly about their “red-lines” and trade-offs; on a technical level, a gathering of 17 ambassadors to facilitate the negotiations in different areas; and finally the COP 21 as a comprehensive process with seven meetings of the ‘Committée de Paris’, which gathered parties and observers, ensured the transparency of negotiations and promoted a common understanding of the progress made in the negotiation. During its meetings, parties could express their views on the draft text, while the COP21 President and his facilitator-ambassadors shared the information on the negotiation of the text. Keeping participants of COP21 as a whole – parties and observers – in the loop through the meetings of Committée de Paris and their presence in the same room facilitated the advance of the negotiations. It provided opportunities for parties and observer organisations to discuss key questions, and the latter could exercise advocacy through bilateral meetings as well as exercise public pressure outside of the conference halls.

It is also worth noting that to break through barriers that seemed to prevent progress during the first week, Fabius played a role as change manager to harness good will from all 195 states to advance the negotiation. The four core managerial competences that are essential for the effective management of change as proposed by Carnall (2003, as cited in Burnes, 2014) had been applied by Fabius in this context: decision-making, coalition-building, achieving action, and maintaining momentum and effort.

Decision-making: As described above, Fabius had been successful, by establishing various communication mechanisms, to advance negotiations of the draft text. Decisions were made step by step and progress was shared timely and publicly, to pave the way to reach a consensus at the end of the process.
Coalition-building: Since having taken over the presidency, Fabius had travelled and met with key governments for lobbying. More than 100 countries– including the richer ones (the ‘polluters’) and the poorer ones (the ‘vulnerable’) – had joined the ‘High Ambition Coalition’, an initiative of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum. This Coalition had been formed in secret and was revealed only on the eighth day of COP 21, when it spoke out strongly in favour of an agreement. The Coalition also played an essential role in persuading parties with a recalcitrant attitude and in reducing the number of agreement-resistant states.
Achieving action: During the 2nd week of the negotiation at COP21, Fabius demonstrated confidence in achieving an agreement – and not just a mediocre agreement – and in the actions taken by the group of high-level facilitators supporting him in the process, including Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, which were two difficult parties to be convinced to form an agreement. By inviting them to be facilitators, they shared their responsibilities to produce results for the negotiation to move forward.
Maintaining momentum and effort: During the 2nd week, the process was full of suspense and Fabius’ skilful navigation through the negotiation, for instance by ensuring transparency regarding the advancement of the draft text and by proposing mechanisms to include not only parties but also observers, has enabled parties to engage well in negotiations and to reach a consensus. It seemed to me that the perseverance and patience of Fabius were decisive in this tricky process.

So, what has changed since the COP negotiation failure in 2009 in Copenhagen to facilitate this consensus of Paris in 2015? There may be less denial of the fact that climate is changing; decision makers and politicians might be more aware of impacts of climate change in their countries; the general public could have been awakened by catastrophic effects of climate change and may ask  for better responsibility and accountability of their public authorities; just to mention a few. Nevertheless, the organisation behind the scenes by the President of COP 21, Laurent Fabius, in addition to the efforts made by the Secretary General of the United Nations since 2010, was a key determinant of this success. 

On a personal note, I also found that the practical organisation of COP21 was of a high standard. During the two-week long conference, for example, relaxing rooms were at the disposal of delegates to rest a while after days and nights spent in negotiations; food from different regions of the world was provided to delegates far away from home; and shuttle bus services operated night and day between the conference venue and hotels. How can delegates not appreciate all the efforts made by France to reach an agreement in Paris?

Burnes, B. (2014). Managing Change. Sixth edition. Pearson Education Limited.

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