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3 things we learned at this week's U.N. climate change meeting

3 things we learned at this week's U.N. climate change meeting



At the Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, held Nov. 6-17 in Bonn, Germany, nongovernmental and state groups remained committed to the climate-change mitigation goals of the Paris agreement. (Courtesy of Joshua Busby)

I spent last week at the COP23 climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany. Even before the delegates and observers go home, we can predict the outcome: not too much.

For supporters of the Paris agreement, that is a best-case scenario but also dispiriting. Here are three things we’ve learned from the conference:

1) The status quo is stable, for now

This year’s conference of parties (COP) was to be an interim technical meeting to elaborate the “Paris rule book” before it is finalized next year. However, after President Trump’s announcement in June that the United States would withdraw from the agreement, COP23 took on added political significance.

All other parties, including China, India and the European Union, reaffirmed their commitments. A host of U.S. governors, mayors and nonstate actors also struck a defiant pose. A variety of new coalitions — We Are Still In, U.S. Climate Alliance and America’s Pledge — sought to show how subnational and civic commitments could help maintain U.S. commitments.

The U.S. government declined to sponsor a country pavilion to show off what the United States is doing, but these groups stepped in, setting up giant inflatable igloos to host events just outside the main negotiations. Volunteers gave out tote bags and pins proclaiming America’s commitment to the agreement.

Syria announced last week that it would join the Paris agreement, leaving the United States isolated as the only country in the world opposed to the agreement. [For now, technically the United States is still in. The rules dictate that the U.S. cannot formally leave for four years, which would be one day after the next U.S. presidential election, in 2020.]

The Trump administration sent a skeleton crew of representatives to Bonn. A U.S. government-sponsored side event to showcase fossil fuels and nuclear power was met with protests — the delegation offered a message few governments and groups in Bonn expected to hear.

Meanwhile, State Department and Chinese officials co-chaired a working group on transparency. Persuading China to embrace uniform measures on reporting and transparency for both developed and developing countries will not be easy, however.

2) The climate is still getting worse

Before Bonn, the U.N. Environment Program released its annual emissions gap report, which showed collective commitments under Paris are only about one-third of the level needed to be to keep global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

What’s more, the Global Carbon Project released a report during the conference that projected emissions ticking up in 2017, after three consecutive flat years.

While analysts knew that Paris commitments were inadequate, they hoped to ratchet up future commitments, starting with the “facilitative” or “Talanoa dialogue” in 2018 leading up to the next round of national pledges in 2020. The Trump election and recent trends complicate that vision.

3) It’s still not clear whether other actors can fill the gap left by the United States

The United States was only intermittently a constructive player on global climate policy over the past 25 years. But the Obama administration was instrumental in making Paris possible. COP23 and beyond are a test of how durable the Paris agreement will be without the U.S. government.

Can Europe step up?

France’s President Macron is hosting a Paris agreement leader summit next month and has pledged to pay the U.S. contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — all of $2 million.

At a side event I organized, Axel Michaelowa of the University of Zurich argued that Europe’s capacity for leadership is limited. Germany is having a hard time meeting its commitments; the U.K. is Brexiting; and Eastern Europe is not all that keen anyway. It does not help that coal-loving Poland will be hosting next year’s COP24 negotiations.

What about China?

Given the size of China’s emissions and recent efforts to curb coal and scale up renewables, the world would like China to lead. But Chinese emissions increased in 2017, and the country’s much-anticipated emissions trading scheme has been delayed.

Angel Hsu of Yale-NUS, speaking on our panel, cautioned that most Chinese officials would say that they are “not ready” to lead. Moreover, China appears to be pressing for “bifurcated” standards on transparency for developed and developing countries. That might make it hard to verify whether China is doing what it says it is.

China’s emissions were 28 percent of the global total in 2016 — and nearly twice that of the United States. The big question is whether China can peak its emissions perhaps even before 2030 — which it roughly pledged in its Paris commitment.

Can India provide leadership?

Arunabha Ghosh of India’s Council on Energy, Environment and Water argued that it’s misleading to look for a single leader in a bottom-up agreement. Though bullish on India’s solar scale-up, and efforts to promote LED lighting and cleaner LPG cooking gas, Ghosh was concerned that countries are using the renewables revolution to push protectionism, rather than work together.

What about substate and nonstate actors?

Efforts by these groups have gotten a lot of attention, including the Yearbook of Global Climate Action launched this week in Bonn that catalogues responses around the world.

In our event, Aimee Barnes, senior adviser to California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), said California and other states had contingency plans to move forward, despite the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. She noted that Brown’s September 2018 Global Climate Action Summit is intended to create momentum and confidence going into the fall negotiations.

For his part, Sander Chan of the German Development Institute was enthusiastic about nonstate actors but cautioned against excessive optimism. Many such groups have made declarations on paper, but much depends on whether there is follow-up action.

What next?

Supporters of the Paris agreement are looking for ways that actors with high ambition can come together to establish long-run decarbonization goals and policies. In 2016, countries agreed to amend the 1987 Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs, coolants in refrigeration that are powerful greenhouse gases. Advocates are looking for other areas for similar progress.

In the transport space, China and India have suggested that they may ban fossil fuel vehicles in favor of electric vehicles, making midcentury decarbonization goals plausible.

Recognizing the long odds, Nigel Purvis of the consultancy Climate Advisers likens these targeted efforts to “Battlestar Galactica” and “the ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest . . . a shining planet known as Earth.” We shall find out if they can succeed.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. Find him on Twitter @busbyj2.


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