The climate negotiator

What we learnt about negotiating for the world's poorest by spending 36 hours with the lead climate negotiator for the Least Developed Countries

Giza Gaspar Martins: the climate negotiator (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

It's day 10 at the Paris climate talks and the chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group has just been locked out of the negotiating hall by an overzealous security guard. It has started to rain.

Giza Gaspar-Martins, cigarette in hand, ignores these irritations and continues through the drizzle to explain to a French journalist why a 1.5 degree global temperature limit is imperative.

An Angolan diplomat, Gaspar-Martins took over as the chair of the Least Developed Countries negotiating bloc in 2015. He has taken on the role with vigour, seeking to raise the profile of the group in the negotiations and particularly to ensure that their demands are heard.

IIED joined Gaspar-Martins for 36 hours during the second week of the crucial climate talks in Paris (COP21). We wanted to understand the challenges faced by the LDC negotiators and find out how the world’s poorest countries manage to make their voices heard in the power games of international relations.

High ambition

A 1.5 degree target has become a symbol of the fight for climate justice within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks at COP21 and it has been one of the key demands from the Least Developed Countries Group in the build-up to Paris.

The world's 48 Least Developed Countries have been negotiating as a bloc since the sixth Conference of the Parties in 2000 – but their demands have frequently been dismissed within the negotiations, or watered down, as more powerful countries flex their economic muscles.

But against all odds, the demand for a 1.5 degree target is gaining traction in Paris, attracting headlines following selective briefing to the media by the LDC Group and others, such as the European Union (EU).

Screen shot from

We had joined Gaspar-Martins on Tuesday afternoon for a meeting with the Guardian newspaper about a growing coalition supporting this demand. Led by the Marshall Islands Environment Minister Tony de Brum, this informal coalition was pushing for the 1.5 degree target to be included in the Paris Agreement text.

With support from the EU and the United States (US), this High Ambition Coalition, as it had become known, had emerged over the course of the previous year's negotiations. It started with talks over coffee and progressed to a breakfast gathering, lunch in Bonn, meetings at the UN General Assembly in New York and, most recently, dinner on the previous Sunday, midway through COP21.

"We broached the idea with our friends," De Brum explains during the Guardian briefing.

Gaspar-Martins, who is Angola's representative at the talks as well as chairing the LDC Group, was an obvious "friend" to approach. The Least Developed Countries are already paying the price of climate change, and have been calling for the 1.5 degree target since 2009.

The 1.5 degree target is just one element of the deal the LDC Group is looking to secure in Paris, and midway through the second week of the talks, everything is still to play for.

While the US support for the target is welcome, it's clear that that support comes with conditions attached. Negotiations over how "loss and damage" is included in the text are proving difficult. And there are also differences on the issue of finance and the legally-binding nature of the agreement.

As group chair, Gaspar-Martins knows it is his responsibility to find a way to persuade the other parties at the talks that the interests of the LDC Group are also their interests – and this can mean not pushing too far.

To complicate the picture, all of the countries represented in the LDC Group also belong to other negotiating blocs at the talks – the African countries are part of the African group, Samoa and the Solomon Islands, for example, are members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), and they all belong to the powerful G77 + China bloc. Making a case for the LDCs means persuading these groups to take the LDC priorities on board.

In practical terms, this means that Gaspar-Martins needs to be in a lot of different meetings, often all at the same time.

Competitive spirit

18.20 The meeting with the Guardian over, Gaspar-Martins needs to catch up with what else has been happening before he briefs his minister. The group works by dividing up the key issues among the negotiating team, with coordinators taking responsibility for specific topics. They use WhatsApp mobile messaging to communicate – but also meet face-to-face in the LDC office and at daily coordination meetings.

Even getting to the office is a challenge, though. The business of the Paris COP is taking place across six huge halls on a vast site in Le Bourget, north of Paris. A wide avenue separates the halls, with a mini model of the Eiffel Tower at one end. The buildings throng with delegates, observers, journalists and support staff. Some 50,000 participants will attend over the two weeks.

While official meeting rooms, named after French rivers (Loire, Charonne, Maroni), are at one side of the site, many of the crucial conversations take place in country offices and pavilions, which governments pay to rent. Few of the LDC Group countries have their own pavilion due to the cost, but the UN secretariat provides a small office for the group to meet in.

The room, which was furnished with just one small table and a handful of chairs when the group arrived, is hidden away down a corridor at the far end of Hall 2 – and is not even marked on most of the maps. A tiny sign on the door is the only indication of who uses the space.

The empty LDC Group office the morning after

Their low profile within the negotiations is just one of the challenges facing the LDC Group in the process. The big players – the US, the EU, India and China – tend to grab the attention and assert their presence at COPs. Their negotiating teams tend to be well-resourced, with experts on hand to provide legal advice, and easily command attention, both from other parties and from the media.

While the LDC Group still struggles to match the resources of some other groups, it is increasingly determined to assert its rights.

Racing against his legal advisor – IIED's Achala Abeysinghe, who thought she knew a quicker route – Gaspar-Martins almost jogs round the halls back to the office. He dodges between the country pavilions (some are extravagant – India's pavilion has a cascade of water, while others would not look out of place at a travel fair), switching between English, French and Portuguese as he makes phone calls. When he walks through the office door and realises he is the first back, he dances around in delight. The LDC team know each other well after working together since Copenhagen – and Gaspar-Martins clearly enjoys teasing the group's high-powered lawyer.

The business of negotiations

18.30 With a sandwich in one hand and juggling his two phones in the other, Gaspar-Martins listens to feedback from one of the coordinators who has been meeting with US Secretary of State, John Kerry. Food – sandwiches, fruit and snacks – funded by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) has been ordered in to allow them to work while they eat. This is his lunch – and will probably be his dinner as well.

Discussions continue during a working lunch

The LDC negotiators are joined by the Environment Minister for the Gambia, Pa Ousman Jarju, who is the former group chair, and has been selected by the president of the COP to coordinate one of the Comité de Paris working groups alongside UK Energy Minister Amber Rudd. Discussions swirl around finance, loss and damage, the wording in the drafts being circulated, the process going forward.

"Be careful with the word 'shall'," Gaspar-Martins warns one of the coordinators. He is calm and careful in his attention to the text, respectful of the expertise of the people he is working with.

"You're going to erase too much. And if you start enumerating, you're going to cause problems."

In fact the difference between "should" and "shall" almost scuppered the talks, with the United States unable to sign up to the more legally binding "shall" in relation to mitigation commitments, resulting in a rapid revision of the final agreement text in the closing hours of the COP on Saturday, 12 December, to replace "shall" with "should".

A quick cigarette break ("talking to my wife" is his code for this, while when he needs to take a bathroom break, he tells colleagues he is "doing the things I cannot delegate"), and he’s off to find the Ethiopian minister who has asked to speak to him. 

 2:02 Giza Gaspar-Martins at COP21

An accidental climate advocate

Gaspar-Martins says his role as the LDC chair came about by complete accident. He had no intention of becoming a climate negotiator, and didn't even have a particular interest in climate change. The son of an Angolan diplomat, he studied economics in the US and was working for Angola's mission to the United Nations in New York when he was asked to join the country's delegation at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009.

Copenhagen was a shock – negotiations at the UN level in New York tend to be less complex, he says. There is, perhaps, less to play for. Arriving towards the end of the talks, he found Copenhagen "chaotic".

Representing your country, and indeed the LDCs, is a huge responsibility, which takes its toll with high levels of stress. But it is clearly a task he enjoys.

"I think there's no other way – if you do not find meaning in what you are doing in here, then you shouldn't be here," he adds. "But yes, it's a lot of fun".

No entry

19.10 Back in the LDC office, Gaspar-Martins is upbeat. The meeting was positive; he understood the situation. The office is still busy, with two of the group coordinators still working on draft text. Others arrive, grab a sandwich and then leave again.

The evening plenary, chaired by the COP21 president, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, is about to start. But Gaspar-Martins has lost his copy of the text. He cannot go into the plenary hall without it and frantically hunts among the piles of paper left on the tables. Thinley, the coordinator from Bhutan, offers his.

A queue gathers to enter the plenary session

 A queue gathers to enter the plenary session

Outside the Loire plenary room, a crowd is forming around the security guards. The room is full. No one else is allowed to go in. Angry delegates protest. Despite the huge site, key meetings are often packed and overflowing, and delegates frequently have to queue for a seat at the table. Gaspar-Martins pushes forward to the front, but is refused entry.

"He's the LDC chair," someone shouts from the crowd. "Point of order. He needs to speak."

The security guard is unmoved. After all, everyone in front of him claims they need to be in the room. Gaspar-Martins moves across to a second guard at the other side of the entrance. A quiet conversation and he is let through.

Once inside, delegates sit in rows behind country badges and microphones, facing the COP president, the UNFCCC Secretary General and their team, who sit on a raised platform at the front of the vast hall. Big screens broadcast the speeches for the benefit of "observers" from civil society sitting around the edges of the room – and the session is relayed via screens into overflow rooms elsewhere.

COP21 president Laurent Fabius addresses the evening plenary

 COP21 president Laurent Fabius addresses the evening plenary

The COP president announces that a new draft of the Paris Agreement text will be delivered at noon tomorrow. Delegates indicate they wish to speak by pressing a button on their microphone, they are added to the queue, and then called to speak in turn by the president.

Diplomatic convention dictates that the LDC Group may only intervene after the G77 + China, represented in the room by South Africa, has had its say.

It is just after 8pm when Angola is called. Taking the microphone for just over a minute, Gaspar-Martins expresses his agreement with the position of the G77 + China, while emphasising the importance of the 1.5 degree target.

"Secondly to highlight of course the need for us to do keep in mind as we elaborate in the new text the need to express a temperature goal that is responding and consistent with what science recommends, therefore it is, it was heartening to know that there is an emerging consensus around the 1.5 degree target…

"Transparency and inclusiveness and the need to ensure that small delegations are fully reflected, fully represented in the consultation process is a concern that we reiterate."

Do we need to be in the room?

20.40 As the plenary comes to an end, Venezuela (whose minister is chairing a working group on the preamble text) proposes that work should begin as soon as possible with an Indaba session starting at 9pm.

The session creates a dilemma for the LDC negotiators, who know that from now on, the negotiations are likely to run through the night. It's a small team, and their resources are spread thinly. They had hoped that, tonight at least, they might see their beds.

Back in the office, a reluctant Gaspar-Martins asks: "9pm 'til what?

"We do not have to go the preamble," he initially suggests, keen to conserve energy for the unavoidable long nights sure to follow. "I think we should go home."

The coordinators discuss what needs to be done in the morning, where they need to be, who they need to talk to. With only a handful of negotiators working on the key issues, they have to act strategically. While large delegations such as the United States have a team of professional negotiators and specialists, able to work on a rota when talks go into the night, the LDC Group does not have that luxury.

Gaspar-Martins must allocate the group's resources with care, especially once negotiations move to the ministerial level. There are few LDC ministers at the COP. However, they do have some key figures. At the coordination meeting earlier in the day, former president of East Timor and Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta offered his support. While all states are equal within the UN system, some representatives command more respect. He could be a valuable asset in the coming days, but the negotiators must ensure that all the ministers involved are well briefed.

At 9pm, fuelled by coffee – he gets through seven or eight decaff lattes a day (the decaff a concession to his health) – the group chair unenthusiastically heads off to the Indaba. It will prove to be a difficult session. While the special status of the LDCs is recognised in the UNFCCC, other countries also want their special circumstances acknowledged in the preamble text. The session does not finish until 1am.

Outside the LDC Group office

A waiting game

08.30 Wednesday morning, and the unresolved problems from the night before hang over the office. Debris from day before litters the table. The evening's frenzied activity has been replaced by an odd kind of limbo as negotiators wait for the new text and ponder how the latest set of difficulties can be overcome. A few members of the group drift in, and then head out again. One chews on a stale leftover sandwich.

The LDC Group includes a geographical mix of countries, from African states to small islands such Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, as well as Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal. The special needs and situations of the group was recognised under article 4.9 of the UNFCCC in 1992. Membership of the group has changed in the intervening years as some members, most recently Samoa and the Maldives, have graduated above the "least developed" threshold defined by the United Nations.

Because of their special status, LDC country governments receive financial support from the UNFCCC secretariat to fund two negotiators to attend the climate negotiations. While this support is appreciated, LDC delegations can be tiny compared to some of the richer countries – although delegations have been growing as climate change becomes more of a priority for the countries involved. For example, Russia, China, Brazil and Canada each registered more than 300 people in their delegations, while Tanzania registered just 20 delegates ahead of the talks.

The group also receives welcome support from IIED's climate team, funded by CDKN and Irish Aid, in the form of legal advice and administrative help. And two lawyers from the Legal Response Initiative are working with the group on a pro bono basis.

 3:02 Saleemul Huq describes the progress of the LDC Group over the years

Building momentum

12.30 The chair arrives in the office, dapper in a dark blue suit and red tie, talking animatedly into his phone. The conversation drifts from Portuguese into English.

"I don't fight battles, I cannot win," he says.

He has been briefing his minister this morning before joining the LDC team. According to the information screens dotted around the halls, the Comité de Paris meeting, scheduled for 12pm, has been postponed. But there is still work to be done.

The High Ambition Coalition, which grabbed media attention the day before by putting rich and poor countries on the same platform, is growing. A press conference is being organised for later that afternoon. The US Special Envoy on Climate Change, Todd Stern, has agreed to appear on the platform. The LDC chair has also been asked to speak.

12.50 A briefing paper on the coalition in his hand, Gaspar-Martins heads off with Abeysinghe to find somewhere quiet to work. The corridors outside of the LDC office are buzzing, and every few metres he is forced to stop for a quick conversation, a catch-up, a phone call.

Finally, they find refuge at the back of an empty meeting room, and work through the text. Yes, this is OK, this is OK, this is OK, we cannot say this…

13.00 It is time for the daily LDC Group coordination meeting. Gaspar-Martin switches gear and moves into chairing mode. But key people are missing – in meetings elsewhere. He makes a quick decision to delay the meeting and leaves the room to grab coffee. He is a pragmatist who can only do what can be done. Ten minutes later he is back on the platform at the front of the room, accompanied by Angola's Environment Minister Maria de Fátima Jardim.

There are 50 or so negotiators present. Gaspar-Martin exudes a quiet authority as he pushes through the agenda. The meeting is a chance to catch up on progress and discuss the work that still needs to be done, he tells them, ahead of the publication of the new text.

Coordinators start their report backs, but their words are drowned out by a meeting in the next room. Gaspar-Martins urges them to speak closer to the microphone.

Key issues, including loss and damage, remain unresolved. The big question is how the vulnerabilities and special needs of the LDCs and other countries should be reflected in the text.

"What we are confronted with is an attempt to reinterpret Article 4.9," Giza explains. "The LDCs, due to social and economic circumstances are least capable – that is recognised by the UN, so that capacity consideration needs to be recognised. They are difficult conversations. SIDS [Small Island Developing States] want equal recognition, as does the African continent, and that leads to requests from Latin America… The discussions are inconclusive.

"LDCs have a very firm position," he says. "Article 4.9 is special and separate from the vulnerability discussion."

The new text is now expected at 3pm. The president has asked parties to consider it fully before reporting back to the Comité de Paris at 8pm. The pressure is on, with negotiations expected to go through the night to resolve outstanding issues.

14.00 The coordination meeting wraps up but intense discussions follow, first with the Angolan minister and then with coordinators. Gaspar-Martins has an interview scheduled with a journalist from a French environmental news service. He suggests they head outside, ignoring the no exit signs. A vigilant security guard closes the doors firmly behind him, shutting him out.

The interview done, the only option is to take the long way round the outside of the building to get back to the office.

Inside the LDC room as the draft text is published

New text

15.15 Plenary convenes and the new text is distributed. But Gaspar-Martins is not in the room. He is back in the LDC office. Crucially, he does not have a copy of the text. Some of the negotiators who have been in the room did not manage to get a copy either. There is a frantic hunt to see whether it has been uploaded online.

While copies are finally being printed, coordinators and the Gambian minister assemble. The room is tense, anxious. The new draft has just 29 pages – and the group gathers around the table to read it, with some members left with no option but to sit on the floor.

When the pressure is on, the LDC Group's limited resources really show. They have just one printer – and time waiting for copies is time that could have been spent looking at the text.

Gaspar-Martins, agitated, urges them to focus on their issues. They scan the pages. Highlighter pens appear. There are hushed discussions on the language used. Are their issues covered? Are key areas still in brackets? What has been included in the preamble

The crucial question of temperature rise is still not resolved (Article 2). Options also remain on loss and damage – either as a separate article (Article 5), or included with adaptation (Article 4).

"We are not doing tactics, we are just working out where our stuff is," the chair reminds them.

With a coordination meeting scheduled for 4.30pm, they have just 15 minutes in which to identify the key points to focus on.

"We need to move, people are waiting," Gaspar-Martin says.

16.40 The chair and coordinators head to Hall 6 to meet with the wider LDC Group. As soon as gets outside, Gaspar-Martins lights a cigarette – but he has no time to smoke it. He takes three puffs, stubs it out and is on his way.

"It's a good text," he explains as he heads into the meeting. "We need to do some detective work. Some good brains have been working hard to hide things in here."

Crunch words

16.45 Meeting Room 19: Gaspar-Martins is joined on the top table by the Angolan Environment Minister. The group works through the text, pulling apart the language. The chair sips a coffee. Different coordinators feed back on the issues they lead on.

Giza Gaspar-Martins speaks at the coordination meeting

 Giza Gaspar-Martins speaks at the coordination meeting

Article 3 on mitigation has implications for the use of agricultural land. The text needs to ensure all parties both "communicate and implement" their plans to reduce emissions. This is a crunch issue.

Article 5 on loss and damage remains controversial. Article 6 on finance does not clearly identify provisions as required under the onvention. 

As they work through the details some African negotiators leave to join the African Group meeting that is about to start.

"It is a text that will have to be negotiated," Gaspar-Martin acknowledges.

17.25 The coordination meeting adjourns, but discussions continue. The LDC Group has been invited to a bilateral meeting with COP president Fabius at 5.45pm.

Eventually Gaspar-Martin pulls away from the discussions to head for the presidential suite, accompanied by his shadow, Abeysinghe, and some LDC coordinators. They are late and break into a run. Hall 2 is crowded and filled by the sound of chanting from climate justice activists holding a sit-in. 

"It's for 1.5 degrees," Giza smiles as he rushes past.

Corridors of power

The presidential suite is hidden away down a long carpeted corridor lined with topiary, punctuated by security cordons. Visitors are scrutinised, numbers limited. Those not invited are ushered away or pointed towards seats in a waiting area.

Invited delegates head up a temporary chipboard staircase to Fabius' office. At the bottom of the stairs other delegates huddle, discuss and move on.

The meeting lasts just 15 minutes. As one group leaves, another arrives. Some of the delegations seem to have brought their full entourage.

Still damp from the rain outside, Gaspar-Martins is rarely separated from his phone

Walking back down the corridor, Gaspar-Martins discusses strategy and tactics for the negotiations ahead.

"We need to be able to react to what is going on in the room," he says. "We need to share reactions between the high level group, we need to try and sit close to each other, we need to make sure the right people are in the room."

He pauses briefly to greet former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Irish President Mary Robinson and her team, who are in discussion at one of the side tables along the corridor. Then heads back into the maelstrom. The G77 group is meeting and he needs to make sure he knows what is being said.

A packed room of journalists attend the High Ambition Coalition press conference

Keeping ambition high

18.30 In Hall 5, journalists are waiting for the High Ambition Coalition press briefing to start. The room is packed. Gaspar-Martins takes his seat on the crowded panel. Pa Ousman Jarju, the US special representative, Todd Stern, and the European Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, Tony de Brum and the Colombian deputy environment minister Pablo Vieira Samper are also there.

De Brum presents the coalition’s demands. Journalists want to know whether China and India are on board. Afterwards the room is buzzing.
"Is this a game-changer?" one journalist asks.

19.00 The LDC chair is supposed to be briefing the press on his group's position. The room is full of journalists, but Gaspar-Martins is not there. An urgent meeting with the G77 Group has taken precedence.

 1:38 Giza Gaspar-Martins gives the LDC Group view at the High Ambition Coalition press conference

Plenary reactions

20.00 The plenary room bristles with expectation as queues of people file in for the Comité de Paris meeting. This time Gaspar-Martins is in the room.

The COP21 president announces that an Indaba will follow the session, starting at 11pm, to discuss key issues that remain unresolved.

South Africa is first to intervene, speaking for the G77 + China. The text does not cover all the issues, they say. It has moved away from the Framework Convention. The language is inconsistent. Key adaptation issues have not been included. The G77 group supports the inclusion of loss and damage as a separate issue. The intervention is greeted with applause.

Switzerland (representing the Environmental Integrity Group), The Maldives (AOSIS), Barbados (The Caribbean Community, or CARICOM), Turkey, Australia (representing the mix of non-EU developed countries known as the Umbrella Group), the Ukraine and China line up to criticise the text on the table. More work needs to be done.

Angola is called to speak on behalf of the LDC Group. Sounding measured, even a little weary, Gaspar-Martins thanks the president for his work so far and aligns the group with the statements made or still to be made by G77 + China, AOSIS and the African Group.

"There are areas that need some improvement," he says. "We trust that you will continue in a transparent and inclusive manner to provide a space for parties to engage, in particular, on the political issues that remain.

"We have serious concerns about the lack of a balanced provision to ensure that the least capable countries continue to get prioritised access to finance…

"With regards to compliance, it must be made absolutely clear that the fact that the compliance mechanism is to address questions of implementation of the provisions of the agreement and to promote compliance…

"We welcome the options that have been reflected on the text with regards to the goal of the agreement, in particular the reference to 1.5… Our preferred option, as it has already been shared by some who preceded me, is option 3…"

Interventions continue from around the floor, with country after country raising difficult issues. At one point Malaysia claims that the president must have done a good job because no one is happy.

Away from the stage

22.00 The Comité de Paris is still going, but Gaspar-Martins has a live media interview scheduled, and must also put together a press statement, having missed the press conference earlier.

Some of the other negotiators have also made their way back to the LDC office. More issues are coming to light as they scrutinise the text. The chair is frustrated with the proposals being put forward by the G77. He feels some of the countries in the group are hiding behind the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities". Sacrifices will need to be made.

Stress levels are clearly running high, but Gaspar-Martins said he tries not to let it get under his skin. Trying to justify your position with anger doesn't help, he says.

"Don't get me wrong," he adds. "These things that are demanded, they are life-changing. They will require some profound changes in the way that some countries are choosing to build their economies. But it will be better if they get to the point and start talking about these things instead of hiding behind CBDR."

22.30 Gaspar-Martins works with his media officer (also funded by CDKN) on a statement and then chats about the live interview coming up with the BBC. He doesn't know the programme or the presenter.

"She's tough," one of the legal advisors warns him.

Hidden away in a corridor alcove, they run through possible questions.

23.30 At the TV camera deck there is a lone cameraman, waiting to link Gaspar-Martins through to London, where he will be interviewed by Emily Maitlis on Newsnight, the BBC's premier late night news show. The LDC chair is wired up for sound and perches on the edge of a stool, looking nervous as he waits to be called upon.

Gaspar-Martins is interviewed for Newsnight

  Gaspar-Martins is interviewed for Newsnight

Behind him, people start to file out of the plenary hall and queues form at the nearby coffee and pizza stall. People have been in plenary since 8pm and now most of the food outlets have closed. There is the hubbub of a school canteen in the background.

23.45 The interview over, Gaspar-Martins says he cannot remember a thing that he said. But positive feedback starts to flood in from people watching in the UK. It went well.

He heads over to Hall 3 where he has left his coat and bag. They have been locked in an office and he has to find a cleaner to open the door.

He'll be needing his coat to sleep under later, he jokes. And he needs to change into comfy shoes. It is going to be a long night.

 3:43 An interview with Giza Gaspar-Martins in the early hours


Words: Helen Burley
Multimedia: Matt Wright
Produced in partnership with the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice