News•November 7, 2016
‘Critical Moment’ as UN Climate Talks Resume
By John Upton
Leaders of nations overwhelmed by fallouts from wars and ravaged by political divisions are gathering in western Morocco, where they will attempt during the next two weeks to unite around a cooperative new approach to easing the worsening ravages of global warming.
Ahead of the first major United Nations climate negotiations since an aspirational agreement was struck in Paris last December, the world’s greatest greenhouse gas polluters, China and the U.S., have signaled that they will continue to try to lead the world toward ambitious climate action following decades of inaction.
The meetings in Marrakesh began Monday amid uncertainty over the direction of the U.S. after its election on Tuesday. The presidential candidates hold polar views on the importance of slowing climate change. Like President Obama, Democrat Hillary Clinton is supportive of the Paris climate agreement; Republican Donald Trump is derisive.
Senior U.N. climate officials at the opening ceremony of a new round of United Nations climate talks.
“The Paris Agreement was a turning point in terms of setting in place a framework, an international framework for action,” John Morton, director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council, a White House body, told reporters last week. “We intend to really intensify our work in turning toward implementation.”
Even as Tuesday’s election rattles climate negotiators, China and the U.S. have been doubling down on their growing commitments to fighting climate change. China has announced a new goal for easing its dependence on fossil fuels by 2020. During the Marrakesh meetings, the U.S. will publish ideas for eliminating most of the carbon pollution from its economy by 2050.
“We’re at an unprecedented stage in climate negotiations,” Morton said. “2016 has been a truly historic year for international climate action.”
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Following a week of networking and low-level talks, senior government officials will begin four days of high-level negotiations on Nov. 15. They will haggle over rules about the information governments should share about progress toward reducing climate impacts. The Paris agreement features non-binding national climate pledges, and rules will be considered for improving those pledges over time. Timelines and bookkeeping rules will be drafted.
Poor and developing countries will pressure those nations that got rich by burning fossil fuels to make good on their promises of helping them meet costs of deploying solar and wind energy and adapting to climate change’s impacts.
Since 2009, Western governments have been pledging the “mobilizing” of $100 billion a year in climate financing by 2020 for poorer nations, though the Paris agreement failed to lay out rules for ensuring those promises are kept.
“The money that was promised is only being delivered in a trickle,” said Saleem Huq, a climate change fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, a group based in London that promotes sustainable development. “We need to open the spigots in Marrakesh.”
The meetings are being held near the end of what will be the third consecutive year of record-breaking heat worldwide. Rising temperatures from greenhouse gases are powering typhoons and hurricanes, and stoking wildfires across the American West.
Amid the heat, corals are bleaching and dying through the tropics. Rising seas are killing forests and flooding roads and neighborhoods along the East and Gulf coasts. Heat waves are killing more people and reshaping ecosystems.
These riverside trees in coastal New Jersey were killed by the effects of rising seas.
Credit: Ted Blanco/Climate Central
The Paris agreement was swiftly ratified by governments as temperatures continued to rise this year, and as prices for clean energy continued to fall. The agreement legally took effect on Friday, surprising climate negotiators and campaigners accustomed to slower progress on climate diplomacy. It formally covers greenhouse gas pollution released during the 2020s.
“The success of the Paris agreement depends on its effective implementation, and that’s where the focus is turning now,” said Elliot Diringer of the American nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “We’re entering a new phase that isn’t quite as exciting, but is just as critical.”
The Paris agreement involves nearly 200 countries, but it was largely fostered through climate agreements struck between the U.S and China in 2014 and 2015. Those countries are the world’s greatest climate polluters, but they had previously been reluctant to tackle warming. That left Europe and vulnerable countries toiling for years as lonely champions of an insipid quest to protect the climate.
“We’re at a critical moment, in the sense that we finally have all countries on board committing to do their best,” Diringer said. “Now we need to make sure we put in place the rules to hold them to that.”
After a 1997 U.N. climate agreement failed to slow warming, and after a round of climate talks collapsed in 2009, American diplomats began urging their counterparts abroad to abandon long-running efforts to force countries to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Instead, governments are now unifying around an untested voluntary approach to reducing pollution, with non-binding pledges underpinning the pact agreed upon in Paris.
The Marrakesh talks will test that global unity at a time when unity in much of the world seems fragile and elusive.
“U.S. standing in the world will be bruised by the U.S. election, no matter who wins; Britain’s ability to lead will be undermined by Brexit,” said University of California, San Diego international relations professor David Victor.
“To some degree, the world is always being rocked by events,” Victor said. “That’s one reason why climate change is such a hard topic to address. It’s the quintessential long-term problem, and most of politics is about managing quintessential short-term problems and crises.”
Determining success in Marrakesh will be difficult, with grunt work on rulemaking largely replacing the diplomatic showmanship that dominated the Paris talks last year.
“I don't see any major successes likely,” Victor said, warning of problems if divisions on financial issues or other vexing topics prevent decisions from being made. “That would be a big setback and would blood the waters with talk of the Paris agenda failing.”
Westerners angered by migration and trade are embracing nativist leaders and causes, just as years of climate diplomacy culminates in the makings of a cooperative strategy for tackling warming. The divisiveness defining America’s presidential election is echoing a brawl in the UK over a withdrawal from the European Union.
Wars are tearing up the Middle East, fueling a global refugee crisis. Turkey has been imprisoning teachers and journalists. The leader of the Philippines may break long-standing militaries ties with the U.S.
Officials from China, France and Brazil have lashed out at Trump over his opposition to the Paris agreement. Amid condemnation of its atrocities in Syria and its invasion of Ukrainian territory, Russia, which promised nothing meaningful under its Paris climate pledge, has been accused of using espionage to help get Trump elected.
Against this backdrop, the climate talks could be an “oasis of civility,” said Harvard economics professor Robert Stavins, who heads the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements — “a temporary hiatus from the troubling issues that government officials and civil society are now confronting on a seemingly daily basis.”
If Trump is elected, or if the outcome of the presidential election remains in doubt, however, Stavins warned the talks would probably be held in a “depressed” state.
The Paris agreement aims to keep warming to “well below” 2°C (3.6F). The planet has already warmed nearly half that much since pre-Industrial times. In February and March it got so hot that the Paris agreement’s headier goal of preventing 1.5°C of warming was briefly blown, before global temperatures eased slightly, even as monthly temperature records continued to tumble through the summer and fall.
Carbon dioxide emissions may have finally stabilized on a year-to-year basis following decades of rapid growth, but they have plateaued at a dangerously high rate. A rapid decline in yearly emissions would be needed to achieve the Paris agreement’s goals, but there have been no robust signs of decline.
“It's quite possible, even likely, that emissions will rise further,” said Stanford professor Robert Jackson, a scientist with the Global Carbon Project, which tallies climate pollution. “I doubt we'll ever see sustained growth again the way we did for the past decade.”
Even if all countries meet the pledges they made under the Paris agreement, fossil fuel burning wouldn’t be phased out quickly enough to achieve the goals of the agreement. Rules will be debated in Marrakesh designed to hurriedly improve those national pledges, testing the world’s current appetite for aggressively tackling warming.
“The heart of the accord is the process it establishes to periodically review countries’ progress toward meeting their commitments, and to ratchet up ambition over time,” said Alex Hanafi, a climate expert with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. “The goal of the Marrakesh gathering is to maintain the strong momentum on climate action.”