June 25, 2024

In recent years, environmental activists have lambasted annual United Nations climate conferences for producing “empty words” and “hollow promises” instead of concrete actions to slow global warming. Many of those critics argue that follow-through — actually implementing commitments made so far — matters more than showing up for more “blah blah blah,” as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg famously described world leaders’ climate pledges.

But to negotiators at these U.N. summits, words matter quite a bit. In 2007, negotiators at COP13 in Bali famously debated a single comma late into the night. In 2015, the United States’ objection to the word “shall” nearly derailed the Paris Agreement, a landmark climate treaty in which countries agreed to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s because minor language tweaks can add up to major policy implications by either strengthening or weakening countries’ obligations. Some words, like “shall,” even carry special legal status, compelling countries to follow through on their pledges. Former negotiators gave Grist an overview of how and when language matters — or sometimes doesn’t — during climate negotiations. 

At climate conferences, countries often use certain words to soften language on tricky topics, such as financing for damages caused by climate change, to reach agreement. “The issue is that we have to reach a consensus,” said Ian Fry, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and climate change and a former negotiator for Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. That means all 198 countries need to agree on the annual U.N. climate conference’s final decision — a document that describes the actions countries will take to address climate change. “Usually there are specific words that are used as some sort of compromise to gain the consensus required.”

Fry calls these phrases “slippery words.” One example is “as appropriate” or “if appropriate,” he said. If, say, a decision called for wealthy countries to provide climate adaptation funding to developing countries, rich nations might push to tack on “as appropriate” at the end — a qualifier that Fry says gives donor countries much more discretion and agency. “It turns a general obligation into one that’s determined by the party who’s providing the funds,” he said. 

Another example is the word “consider.” Rather than committing to an action, countries might choose to say they will “consider” a given measure, Fry said. He describes this “slippery word” as a kind of delay mechanism — deciding to “consider” something, rather than deciding something outright, means “there’s no conclusion on this issue and we’ll think about it further.”

Viewed in a positive light, minute language tweaks are a creative way to reach a deal among countries with vastly different priorities. Susan Biniaz, who has served as a lead U.S. climate negotiator for more than three decades, wrote in 2016 that while countries sometimes need to compromise on major issues, “Lesser known are the smaller, largely language-based tools negotiators have used to resolve differences, sometimes finding a solution as subtle as a shift in the placement of a comma.” Biniaz cataloged nearly 30 pages of real-life examples of these “language-based tools,” including adding footnotes, using the passive voice (for example, writing “support shall be provided” rather specifying where that support will come from), and using certain verbs to avoid creating legal commitments. 

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with delegates at COP21 in Le Bourget, north of Paris, on December 12, 2015.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with delegates at COP21 in Le Bourget, north of Paris, in December 2015. Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Under international law, some verbs are “legally binding,” meaning parties are strictly obligated to follow through on those commitments. Most verbs used in U.N. climate talks, like “will” and “should,” are not legally binding — but a few, like “shall,” are. In 2015, one of the final drafts of the Paris Agreement stated that wealthy countries like the U.S. “shall” set economy-wide targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That could have forced the U.S. to send the treaty back to a Republican-majority Senate for approval, causing negotiators to scramble to change it to a “should” at the last minute. “When I looked at that, I said, ‘We cannot do this and we will not do this,’” then-Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at the time. The U.S. delegation claimed that “shall” had been mistakenly swapped in at the last minute; Paris convention leaders eventually categorized it as a typo

“These are the games that are played by countries to minimize their obligations,” Fry said of the incident in Paris, where he represented the delegation of Tuvalu. 

At other times, word choice doesn’t mean much at all, said Kaveh Guilanpour, a former climate negotiator for the European Union, United Kingdom, and the Alliance of Small Island States. Among verbs that are not legally binding, there’s little difference in how politically meaningful they are. For example, an agreement might “urge” countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — or “encourage,” “request,” or “invite.” Unlike “shall,” none of these words strictly commit countries to take action. They might even be randomly chosen — during negotiations, “Words are plucked out at the last moment just to find the way forward,” Guilanpour said.

Get caught up on COP28

What is COP28? Every year, climate negotiators from around the world gather under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to assess countries’ progress toward reducing carbon emissions and limiting global temperature rise. 

The 28th Conference of the Parties, or COP28, is taking place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, between November 30 and December 12 this year.

Read more: The questions and controversies driving this year’s conference

What happens at COP? Part trade show, part high-stakes negotiations, COPs are annual convenings where world leaders attempt to move the needle on climate change.

While activists up the ante with disruptive protests and industry leaders hash out deals on the sidelines, the most consequential outcomes of the conference will largely be negotiated behind closed doors. Over two weeks, delegates will pore over language describing countries’ commitments to reduce carbon emissions, jostling over the precise wording that all 194 countries can agree to.

What are the key issues at COP28 this year?

Global stocktake: The 2016 landmark Paris Agreement marked the first time countries united behind a goal to limit global temperature increase. The international treaty consists of 29 articles with numerous targets, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing financial flows to developing countries, and setting up a carbon market. For the first time since then, countries will conduct a “global stocktake” to measure how much progress they’ve made toward those goals at COP28 and where they’re lagging.

Fossil fuel phaseout or phasedown: Countries have agreed to reduce carbon emissions at previous COPs, but have not explicitly acknowledged the role of fossil fuels in causing the climate crisis until recently. This year, negotiators will be haggling over the exact phrasing that signals that the world needs to transition away from fossil fuels. They may decide that countries need to phase down or phase out fossil fuels or come up with entirely new wording that conveys the need to ramp down fossil fuel use. 

Read more: How fossil fuel phrasing played out at COP27

Loss and damage: Last year, countries agreed to set up a historic fund to help developing nations deal with the so-called loss and damage that they are currently facing as a result of climate change. At COP28, countries will agree on a number of nitty-gritty details about the fund’s operations, including which country will host the fund, who will pay into it and withdraw from it, as well as the makeup of the fund’s board. 

Read more: The difficult negotiations over a loss and damage fund

What’s far more important is the substance of the decision itself, he said. In 2021 at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, for example, world leaders explicitly referenced fossil fuels — the primary cause of climate change — for the first time. Diplomats agreed to pursue a “phasedown of unabated coal power” and a “phaseout of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” in the final decision of that conference. Last year, at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, diplomats largely repeated the same commitment.

That’s a big deal, Guilanpour said. The 2015 Paris Agreement, for example, doesn’t mention “fossil fuels,” “coal,” “oil,” or “gas” at all. Guilanpour said it’s a sign that climate negotiations are gradually beginning to target specific sectors like the oil and gas industry. Those signals, he said, make it clear “to the world and to certain markets that this transition is happening” — and that businesses need to prepare. 

Fry noted that a similar cascading effect happened after COP25 in Madrid, where leaders formally connected climate change to ocean conservation for the first time. “That has driven a whole lot of work by various U.N. agencies, NGOs, etc., to develop work around the connection between oceans and climate change,” he said.

COP28 in Dubai, which begins this week, will likely continue highlighting the need to move away from fossil fuels. But as in the last two years, diplomats could end up wrangling over which words they should use to describe that transition. At COP26 and COP27, small island nations called for a “phaseout” of coal, which refers to a complete displacement of coal with renewables. But oil-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia and coal-reliant economies like India successfully pushed for a “phasedown” instead, which would significantly reduce coal use but stop short of eliminating it entirely. Some countries also tried to limit the use of all fossil fuels, not just coal — a debate that will likely arise again at this year’s negotiations.

Delegates from Timor listen to speeches at the COP27 on Nov. 8, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Delegates from Timor-Leste listen to speeches at the COP27 in November 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Peter Dejong / AP Photo

Fry said the subtle change to “phasedown” rather than a “phaseout” ultimately weakened countries’ climate commitments. “There’s quite a significant difference between saying fossil fuels are going to end and saying fossil fuels will continue into the future,” he said. “It sends a weakened signal to businesses and other countries.” A group of 21 countries called the High Ambition Coalition have advocated for a “phaseout of fossil fuels” in a statement ahead of this week’s conference.

Another point of contention is the word “unabated.” Wealthy nations including the U.S. and the European Union have called for a “phaseout of unabated fossil fuels.” The High Ambition Coalition, which includes Barbados, Finland, and the Marshall Islands, has said that wording would leave the door open for “abated” coal, oil, and gas projects — those that use carbon capture technology. Those countries have argued that “abatement technologies” cannot be used to “green-light fossil fuel expansion.” In September, the International Energy Agency characterized carbon capture as “expensive and unproven at scale.” 

A U.S. State Department official told reporters in November that whether it’s “phasedown,” “phaseout,” or different wording altogether, this year’s decision will likely include some reference to the transition away from fossil fuels. Guilanpour added that regardless of what negotiators settle on in Dubai, it’s what happens after everyone goes home — and begins the work of actually implementing those commitments — that counts. 

“It isn’t just about the nuances of the language, but also following through,” he said.

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