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A new global climate accord edged closer on Saturday as negotiators ended four years of work and produced a draft text of an agreement for ministers to finalise next week.
“This is a milestone,” said Laurence Tubiana, France’s ambassador to the talks, as delegates formally accepted a draft that has been in the making since 2011.
“I’m probably not the only one who feels really emotional about this,” she said.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and his counterparts from nearly 200 countries will head to Paris on Sunday for the last five days of negotiations on the first new global accord to limit carbon emissions in 18 years.
But the 48-page draft that emerged on Saturday still contains a number of potential minefields that could end up making a final agreement very weak or even impossible to conclude.
“It’s messy,” said one European delegate, adding the document nonetheless contained the clear outlines of an accord and it was striking to see delegates from almost every country say they wanted a deal next week.
“We’re talking about life itself,” said Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, who is also serving as president of the conference, due to end on Friday.
“I intend to muster the experience of my entire life to the service of success for next Friday,” Mr Fabius said.
To support a successful outcome at the Paris talks, known as COP21, a host of celebrities, business leaders and politicians descended on the Le Bourget airfield north of city’s centre on Saturday where the conference is being held.
Among them were 10 US Democratic senators keen to demonstrate support for the climate plans of US President Barack Obama, despite fierce opposition from Republican legislators.
US actor Sean Penn said he believed the Paris meeting was taking place in “the most exciting time in human history” because “the days of dreams have given way to the days of doing”.
Chief among the most problematic issues to be settled next week are those that have bedevilled UN climate talks for more than 20 years — questions such as: How much should wealthy countries pay poorer nations to help them lower emissions and how much should all countries collectively cut their carbon pollution to avert dangerous global warming?
Signs of compromise on some of the biggest stumbling blocks in the talks began to emerge late on Friday.
Delegates from wealthy countries have hinted they will accept a demand for the agreement to include a requirement for them to deliver $100bn a year after 2020 to help poorer countries deal with climate change — as long as developing countries agree to do their best to limit emissions and back tougher rules on the way pollution is counted and reduced.
Some rich countries have also said they are willing to increase this $100bn figure in future years, but only if the so-called “donor base” of climate finance is enlarged to include big emerging economies such as China.
India and other countries are firmly opposed to this. But US envoy Todd Stern said people were “over-reading” the issue by thinking it amounted to the US wanting countries to take on new obligations. “We are not,” he said.
Still, divisions remain over a host of other elements of a potential agreement, including many that helped sink the last effort to seal a new climate deal, in Copenhagen in 2009.
This time, negotiators say the conditions for a deal are much better.
“Copenhagen was more like a trade fair than a negotiation,” said Elina Bardram, a senior EU delegate, explaining one of the reasons the meeting failed was because of the “flawed concept” that world leaders could personally negotiate the highly technical details of a climate accord.
In Paris, about 150 leaders came for one day at the start of the two-week meeting to help bolster what Mr Obama said should be a “turning point” when “we finally determined we would save our planet”. They then flew off to leave their ministers and officials to finalise the agreement.
Another reason the Paris meeting differs from Copenhagen is that more than 180 of the 195 countries involved in the talks have already been setting out their respective goals and plans to deal with climate change since March.
This happened much later in the run-up to Copenhagen.
But collectively, the pledges made for the Paris accord do not add up to enough to stop global temperatures rising more than 2C from preindustrial times, a limit governments have already agreed at past UN climate talks.
One of the issues likely to go down to the wire next week is the question of when countries should upgrade their pledges in the future.
The EU and the US are pushing for this to happen as soon as possible, as are many smaller countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
But other nations are pushing for the agreement to contain a much later date.
In Paris, a group of small island states and developing nations are also pressing for the 2C target to be lowered to 1.5C in the new accord, a move Saudi Arabia and other nations are resisting.
Island country leaders also want the new accord to include support for the loss and damage caused by rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change.
Both issues are likely to require a lot of hard negotiation next week.
Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, told reporters on Saturday: “I refuse to go home to my people without a Paris agreement that allows me to look them in the eye and say that everything is going to be OK.”