This article originally appeared as part of the Profiles of Paris series.
by Kevin Rudd
For those of us that carry the scar tissue of Copenhagen, victory in Paris was all the sweeter. It was a much-needed reaffirmation of the value of multilateralism—and the need for the United Nations in particular—when there is so much to make us feel gloomy about the state of the world.
But we should also not forget the extent of what we were able to rescue in that snowy Danish capital six years earlier, which helped sow the seeds for our ultimate success in Paris.
It was in Copenhagen that we first agreed to a global temperature limit. I remember tabling the Australian amendment, and then working to strengthen it alongside the indefatigable Mohamed Nasheed, then President of the Maldives.
It was also in Copenhagen that we agreed on much of the rest of the basic framework that would then ultimately be strengthened – and more importantly accepted – on the road to Paris.
In Copenhagen we realised that asking countries to agree to a deal and only then to determine their contribution was never going to deliver the ambition we needed. We needed everyone to have their cards on the table, and with that the concept of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) was born.
With the exception of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, none of my counterparts from those intense all-night negotiations in Copenhagen were still in office by Paris. But despite having left political office myself, I was determined to do all that I could to ensure we succeeded. As prime minister, I had called it the greatest moral challenge of our generation, and I meant it. So it was as one of Ban Ki-moon, Laurent Fabius and Christiana Figueres’ many foot soldiers that I came to the French capital myself.
A year out from Paris, I already had a clear sense the ground had shifted. Despite all the hope and enthusiasm of the moment, I hadn’t felt this a year out from Copenhagen, when I’d gone to Bali to ratify the Kyoto Protocol as my first act in office. At that time, I wanted to signal Australia was back in the climate game after a decade on the sidelines.
For example, in early 2015 I distinctly remember reading a report from China’s national weather service that said climate change would have “huge impacts” on the country, along with another that suggested China’s economic output would drop by as much as twenty percent by 2050 without action. This, and rising air pollution across the country, meant China now had to act. And the landmark deal with the United States that my friend Xie Zhenhua helped bring about in November 2014 was the biggest sign that the tea leaves were different for Paris.
The tin-foil hat argument that so many had naively levelled against my government—that we shouldn’t introduce an emissions trading scheme until China had taken action—was utterly discredited when China launched the biggest carbon market in the world. And Australia has been left behind.
I was concerned about India. The world couldn’t expect India to simply take a leap of faith, but a big step would probably be required – a point I specifically pressed on Narendra Modi in Delhi about six months before we even got to Paris.
Arriving in Paris, I was particularly struck that not only were the economic arguments starting to resonate, but that there was a real sense of the consequences of inaction. We owe the leadership of Australia’s neighbours in the Pacific Islands a great deal for this. And I saw my role, principally, to help them in their fight for survival.
This was brought home to me one morning as I sat with Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill in the plenary. As did a strategy dinner late one evening with the late-Tony de Brum, the gentle foreign minister of the Marshall Islands and a true climate hero. Tony was working to form a new progressive alliance behind the scenes – an act which fundamentally seized the momentum of the negotiations going into the final days.
Three things had to happen in Paris.
First, there had to be a real acknowledgment of the plight of the Pacific and the impacts we would all feel if we didn’t act. The best way to do this was to include a reference to 1.5 degrees, the level of warming that many islanders considered the red line for their survival.
Second, the cycle by which emissions reduction targets would be set under Paris had to be as short as possible. I remember telling one journalist that if this was not every five years then we would be “buggered” – the quintessential Aussie phrase that my predecessor Bob Hawke once told me from personal experience was often lost in diplomatic translation.
And third, there had to be the support that would allow countries to take the leaps of faith that we were in some cases asking them to do. I did my best to push all three points throughout the first week, and was glad it was the Australian delegation that crafted a compromise to ensure 1.5 degrees was eventually included.
By the time the Agreement was finally adopted I was back home in New York. Among the UN community here, there was a genuine sense of jubilation and achievement, just as powerful as it appeared on the television images from Paris. Like most people that day, I called my children and grandchildren.
Our most important task now is to ensure the Paris Agreement does not falter. We all know the ambition is not enough – not nearly enough – to live up to the promise of the Agreement, and 2020 will be the first test of our ability. It is also, frankly, our last chance to do more.
We need to create the same sense of momentum and consequence that we had in Paris if we are to succeed. The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in 2019 will be the biggest gathering of world leaders on climate change since Paris, and is an opportunity we can’t miss. But we must also heed the lessons of Copenhagen and Paris, and realise that engaging world leaders sooner rather than later is critical for success. That is why, as I wrote after the recent COP, we need to build an arc of ambition through the different events we now have on the road to 2020. This is the only way we can deliver real results at the end of it.
Paris gives me hope we will get there.