Delegates to this year’s UN climate talks (COP22) seemed unprepared for two momentous events – the early entry into force of the ambitious Paris climate agreement and the election of Donald Trump to the United States presidency.
Steady progress on Paris Agreement
The entry into force of the Paris Agreement on 4 November, just before the climate talks opened in Marrakech, was heartening news for delegates. It was one of the fastest global agreements to enter into force, ever. This happened a month after 55 countries responsible for 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas ratified it – it was so quick that its ‘rulebook’ hadn’t even been written yet.
Countries met in Marrakech to start deciding how their national commitments (Nationally Determined Contributions or ‘NDCs’) will be monitored, measured and reported. What’s more, the spectre hung over them of how to increase ambitions to cut greenhouse gas emissions before 2020 – the starting line for new action. It’s a troubling and well known fact that there’s a huge ‘Emissions Gap’ to keep global warming in check below 2 or even 1.5 degrees.
Governments made reasonable progress on the rules of the game and gearing up to deliver the promise of Paris (and more). Parties to the Paris Agreement mapped a clear pathway that will see them convene again at COP23 next year – under Fiji’s leadership – and then at COP24, where the Paris Agreement work programme will be concluded and ready to go.
In summary: governments kept up the momentum from Paris.
American businesses, not government, will lead on climate action
The second surprise of the COP was the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, announced during the Marrakech Summit’s first week. This injected a frisson of anxiety into the proceedings, as Trump is on the record as a climate sceptic.
I’ve seen developing country delegates treat US climate negotiators warily ever since I started attending UNFCCC meetings in 2010 (wariness from the Chinese and Indians, whom Barack Obama famously wooed separately in the run-up to the Paris climate talks, and wariness also from the least developed countries among the G77, who are ‘minnows’ to the United States’ awesome economic power and emissions size).
However, as US Deputy Special Climate Envoy Trigg Talley said in Marrakech, the Obama administration took climate change increasingly seriously – and it showed. He said:
‘Climate change has become one of President Obama’s highest priorities. I have served a number of presidents and I note that for each successive one, that climate change has become an increasingly important priority during the course of that president’s term.’
COP22 delegates wondered whether Trump would recognise the reality that businesses must slash emissions and come clean with emissions reporting to compete effectively in a global marketplace. US business leaders including some of America’s best known brands came out strongly urging Trump to recognise that economic stability depends on a ‘new climate economy’. Delegates asked themselves: will Trump, too, recognise the grave risks of climate change, and also the opportunities of low-carbon positioning for US workers and the American economy?
Still too little finance for adaptation
One area where other donor countries may have to pick up a Trump administration’s slack is in international climate finance. This matters deeply to the least developed and most climate-vulnerable countries. Many, like Ethiopia, have made stretching national commitments on climate mitigation and adaptation.
Least developed countries’ (LDCs) plans typically include self-financed measures, along with targets that depend on external support. LDCs came to Marrakech with a strong ask for more climate finance, especially for adaptation. They partly got their wish: the Adaptation Fund was given a role in delivering the Paris Agreement and its coffers were topped up by European governments. However, the UN’s Biennial Assessment on Climate Finance Flows still found that adaptation to climate change reels in far less funding than climate mitigation.
It doesn’t look likely that a new Trump government will come to LDCs’ aid on this front. More likely is that American action on climate in the few years ahead will come from business leaders, researchers and innovators who have recognised the threats of climate change and the opportunities that low- and zero-carbon innovation can bring. This will include from business leaders who spot new, low-carbon markets for American products and expertise abroad.