By Jeff McMahon
One surprise in the final draft of the Paris Agreement was a pledge by nearly all the world’s countries “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”
It was a wordier phrase than had appeared in previous drafts and proposals, and one likely to prove more effective.
“Achieving a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century will require net carbon dioxide emissions to be reduced, in effect, to zero,” Oxford University geosystems scientist Myles Allen said soon after the agreement passed. “It seems governments understand this, even if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to say so.”
Governments settled on the phrase after weighing many terms they couldn’t quite bring themselves to say, according to Susan Biniaz, a U.S. State Department attorney who has worked on climate negotiations since 1992, including the Paris climate talks in December.
“One of the lessons there was, sometimes you can reach agreement by getting rid of terms and just explaining what you mean,” Biniaz said last week in an appearance at the University of Chicago Law School.
Biniaz has worked largely behind the scenes in climate negotiations since countries first began negotiating. Secretary of State John Kerry lifted the curtain on her contribution in his remarks to reporters moments after the Paris Agreement passed:
“We have a treasure in our team who has been at almost every COP, I think, since 1992, and that’s Sue Biniaz,” Kerry said. ”Just amazing – her knowledge, her skill, her ability to be able to help find a creative way through some very difficult issues is second to nobody that I’ve seen.”
Yet Biniaz told future negotiators at the law school that she was still learning how to break deadlocks:
Going into Paris, advocates and negotiators had proposed a slew of terms for the mitigation article of the agreement, the article that weighs upon greenhouse gas emissions:
- Decarbonization of the global economy by the end of the century
- Climate neutrality by the end of the century
- Carbon neutrality
- Net-zero emissions
Even the penultimate draft of the agreement, released the night before adoption, contained a different term: greenhouse-gas emissions neutrality.
“Every single one of those was flawed for some reason because someone wouldn’t accept it,” Biniaz said at the forum sponsored by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago.
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