In February I described the strategy of Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN framework climate convention,  as betting the world. Never mind the hyperbole, her strategy has triumphantly paid off. The COP 21 conference in Paris next week will be attended by a staggering 150 heads of state or government, starting with Xi Jinping and Barack Obama. This is unheard-of for a diplomatic conference, especially coming so soon after the Paris terrorist massacre by an undefeated Daesh.

Politicians can smell success the way sharks smell blood in the water. They flock to associate themselves with it, just as they distance themselves from failure. It is now an overwhelming probability that COP 21 will lead to the adoption of a solid climate agreement. Delegates must have been given their marching orders: make the best deal you can for our interests, but make the deal. The overwhelming show of top-level backing will also strengthen the hand of the conference chair, the tough vieux routard Laurent Fabius of France, and of Figueres and her team in the secretariat. Isolated holdouts will just find themselves steamrollered.

The architecture of the agreement will be just as I reported here in July.

It will:

  1. lay down an objective of massive decarbonisation, pursued by
  2. national mitigation and adaptation plans embodied in
  3. transparent public commitments filed with the UN, to be
  4. reviewed, revised and improved over time, for which purpose
  5. developed countries will promise lots of finance for developing countries.

This did not take any brilliant insight on my part, just paying a little attention.

So the one thing that will not emerge from Paris is emissions targets any better than the ones already included in the INDCs, let alone a global carbon tax. Everybody agrees that these INDCs are a first step, since at best they will only limit the temperature increase to 2.7 degrees C by 2100. They must therefore, goes the consensus, be tightened up in future reviews. So will it all just be a big PR event and self-congratulatory World Leader photo-op? Not quite. There are some issues still to be solved, and the tone of the forward-looking statements and aspirational texts will be important.

My personal checklist of things to watch for is below the jump, starting with the more technical ones.

1. Conditional INDCs.
The IIASA analysis says that only 9 gigatonnes of the carbon reductions in the INDCs are unconditional and 11 gigatonnes are conditional, mainly on finance. Will the financial offers be good enough to move a significant volume of emissions into the unconditional column? Especially as the economics of renewables, and private-sector financial flows on a market-return basis, have been improving steadily.

2. INDC upgrades.
As I’ve been saying, the recent data on the Chinese coal peak suggest that China could improve its offer from “peaking by 2030 and if possible before” to at least 2020, on current policies. Canada and Australia, with new leadership, may also improve. A much longer shot is India accepting an absolute emissions cap and scaling back its unrealistic as well as antisocial plan to double coal burning. A more realistic hope is that India will run into sharp and unwelcome criticism, and think again afterwards.

3. Have global emissions already peaked?
If I were Fatih Birol of the IEA, I would have my staff prepare an estimate on global GHG emissions for the first three quarters of 2015, and announce this at the start of the conference.

4. Threading the needle on the legal status of the agreement.
This is a specifically American issue, as Obama needs to be legally able to sign the text as an executive agreement or negotiated political commitment, not a treaty requiring Senate consent. IANAL but it looks as if the procedural decisions on the timetable and review mechanism could count as an executive agreement implementing the 1992 Rio Convention. The US will want the INDCs to be political commitments. I assume the Foggy Bottom and Quai d’Orsay lawyers between them will have found forms of words for this: they may not be comprehensible to us.

5. The wording of the long-term commitment to full decarbonisation.
The state of play is the G20′s “in the course of this century”. (Note to aficionados: this is a little stronger than “by the end of the century”). Look for any strengthening. The ideal is “by 2050″, but I’d be pleasantly surprised if we get it.

6. Any mention of 1.5 degrees warming or 350 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2, even in a watered-down and aspirational form. This would open the door to serious negotiations in 5 or 10 years on these lower – and much less risky – targets.

7. Any corridor talk of Christiana Figueres as the first woman SG of the United Nations.

The tone of the meeting will probably be more important than any of these details. Is there finally a real global political consensus that the time to stop global climate disruption is now?

I hope some enterprising fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaker will be following the denialist dinosaur Senator James Inhofe and his packed snowballs round the corridors, getting the polite brushoffs due to the village idiot from the delegate of Vanuatu and data packs from earnest and pretty teenagers with Danish Greenpeace.

Finally, the latest chart from Lazards of comparative US electricity generating costs that explains how success in Paris has become possible after decades of failure. (Higher resolution in the pdf).

Unsubsidized, the cheapest wind generation in the USA is half the price of the cheapest new coal, and solar is just below. Game over. The energy transition is a giant free lunch.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]