Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

The crucial language behind the Paris climate talks

Analysis: How the phrase ‘constructive ambiguity’ may provide nations with wiggle room – and dilute a final deal

PARIS — In an effort to empower the world’s smallest and poorest countries, United Nations climate negotiations approve new treaties by consensus.

That means a single voice can block a deal. It also means that every word of the outcome document now being negotiated at international climate change talks in Paris will be scrutinized — and what emerges could be diluted to make it ambiguous enough for all countries to come on board, climate experts say.

The leaders of about 150 countries began meeting under a U.N. framework in Paris this week in attempt to forge a pact stemming global carbon emissions. The U.N. says it’s the largest single gathering of heads of state in history.

Ahead of Paris, co-chairs gathered in Bonn, Germany, in October to synthesize various proposals into a 20-page draft document that they hope will provide a basis for negotiations in Paris. But developing countries rejected the document, saying it lacked fairness and balance.

Negotiators in Paris split into groups on Monday to begin wrangling over the latest draft text of the agreement, currently 51 pages long. Though observers say there is broad agreement over the general vision of the document, nearly every word of the draft is still under negotiation and the talks are expected to stretch until the last hours of the conference on December 11. Language agreed upon in earlier U.N. agreements isn’t exempt from discussion.

Follow news and analysis on the Paris talks

During the 2009 Copenhagen climate change meetings, countries agreed that “deep cuts in global emissions are required ... so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).” The current draft includes wording that would strengthen that commitment — a position championed by small island states that are especially vulnerable to flooding and storms — but would possibly allow some flexibility over how long it is implemented, as seen in the bracketed suggestions in this excerpt:

“In order to strengthen and support the global response to the urgent threat of climate change,” the draft reads, countries should take action to “hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 2 °C] [below 1.5 °C] [well below 2 °C] [below 2 °C or 1.5 °C] [below 1.5 °C or 2 °C] [as far below 2°C as possible] above pre-industrial levels by ensuring deep cuts in global greenhouse gas [net] emissions.”

Under U.N. rules, every proposal must be considered — even those that are clearly repetitive — requiring time-consuming and dilatory discussions.

Also, in attempts to extract political concessions in other areas, the text contains language addressing matters that may be only tangentially related to climate change. To support Palestinians, for example, several countries have inserted language highlighting the “rights of people under occupation,” a phrase found in many other U.N. General Assembly resolutions.

“These sort of particularities to national circumstances tend to get inserted, but quite often they tend to leave” before the final document is signed, said Liz Gallagher of London-based E3G, a group that promotes sustainable development.

Gallagher pointed to other instances of peripheral matters finding their way into climate negotiations, including a dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over which country has jurisdiction over emissions in the Falkland Islands, and a wrangle between Russia and Ukraine over emissions in Crimea.

Some sections of the Paris text are likely to be removed early in the negotiations process because of strong opposition by powerful states.

Part of the text discusses creating a mechanism to address “loss and damage” associated with climate change — another input from small island states. It is commonly understood as a proposal to provide financial help to poor countries who suffer the direct impact of severe weather linked to global warming. But because of a fear that the “loss and damage” clause could be legally associated with liability — and therefore financial compensation — the United States and other developed countries have unequivocally rejected it. It will likely be stricken from the text, observers say.

When negotiations stumble over specific wording, diplomats often invoke what they call “constructive ambiguity.” In this case, diplomacy tends to result in language that creates a common accord while giving wiggle room to all parties. The 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change includes the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities.” This is commonly understood to imply that more developed countries like the U.S. have a greater responsibility for historical emissions, and therefore a greater obligation to combat climate change. Recently, it has also been taken mean that developing nations have a right to emit certain amounts of pollution.

In an opinion article published ahead of the Paris talks, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities the “bedrock of our collective enterprise,” which permitted developing countries like India to be allowed to grow “with what little carbon we can safely burn.”

“Anything else would be morally wrong,” Modi wrote.

Michael Gerrard, a professor of international law at Columbia University, said ambiguous language often appears in treaties and other international agreements when parties can’t agree on anything more specific.

“The meaning of that phrase [common but differentiated responsibilities] has been the subject of endless debate, but if in 1992 the negotiators had been required to specify what countries have what specific responsibilities, no agreement could have been reached,” Gerrard said.

Similarly, this year’s negotiations will create a document that will be “applicable to all,” a phrase agreed to in Durban, South Africa, in 2011. But whether the treaty will be applied with “flexibility to developing countries” or “with built in flexibility to take into account Parties' differing capacities,” as are suggested in the draft — or simply “applicable to all” — is yet to be decided.

Worried that the Paris outcome document may be watered down, civil society groups are pushing for a five-year review system that would verify but also gradually ratchet up signatories’ commitments. But for now they say it is more important to arrive at consensus over language that outlines obligations and commitments specific enough to help the world to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“The more precision and more clarity we get [in Paris], the better,” Gallagher said.

Related News

Climate Change

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Climate Change

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter