Negotiators departed this year’s UN climate change conference in Bonn having demonstrated stronger commitment to the Paris Agreement than ever before. The young Agreement is finding its legs.
What is in doubt is whether it will be enough to fix the problem it was written to address.
As negotiators arrive home, the world remains on track for 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century, far higher than the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius — targets based on climate tipping points. And that’s assuming every country makes the promises they’ve made so far, which remains far from a sure thing.
Meanwhile, the global greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change are also once again rising, with China partly to blame, undermining Xi Jinping’s efforts to pick up the climate leadership mantle that the US has tossed aside.
These datapoints make for a daunting equation. Even if the Paris Agreement is strong, many activists are unconvinced of its effectiveness.
Here are some takeaways from this month’s Bonn summit, where negotiators continued their work to get the Agreement fully up and running.
The US is not speaking with one voice.
If any negotiators were at Bonn to sound out the US on where it stands with regard to the Accord, they likely went home frustrated.
The Trump administration was there to do silly things like tout the benefit of coal in transitioning to a clean energy economy, a poorly received effort that the administration can nonetheless brandish for approval by industry lobbyists back home.
The State Department delegation, meanwhile, kept a low profile. The most attention-generating thing it did may perhaps have been to admit that the US is still in the Agreement for the next few years, because, under the terms of the Agreement, the US can’t leave it until 2020. Behind closed doors, the US’s tiny delegation — lead by an Obama appointee — stuck to very Obama-like talking points.
Speaking of Obama, his chief negotiator, Todd Stern, made an appearance to further muddy the waters and offer assurance to other countries. “I just firmly believe the US will be back in,” Stern said at the summit. “I don’t know exactly when that will be, obviously, but we’re gonna be back in.”
Then there were sub-national leaders and activists like California Governor Jerry Brown and the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg who made the trek to Bonn to remind the world that many cities, states, tribes, business and universities in the US stand by their commitments to fighting climate change and will do their best to help the US cut its emissions by up to 28 percent, as Obama promised it would, regardless of Trump’s words to the contrary.
Full speed ahead, sort of.
Though Trump has made noises about making good on his promise to pull the US out of the Accord, countries around the world seem more committed to staying the course than ever. In fact, the last two holdouts, Nicaragua (which felt the deal wasn’t strong enough) and Syria (which was otherwise occupied with civil war) signed onto the Agreement this Fall.
The fact that the Paris Agreement is strong, despite the US’s stated intention to withdraw, is no small feat. It took decades to work out an international climate change Agreement of this sort. The world breathed a sigh of relief when, in 2015, the Paris Agreement became a reality endorsed by the world’s two top polluters, the US and China.
The main goal on the horizon for climate negotiators is to get the Paris Agreement’s “rulebook” hammered out by the end of next year, 2018. And, in Bonn this month, negotiators did make some progress on figuring out how the Paris Agreement, and the commitments countries made under it, would work in practice. But a lot remains to be done to meet that 2018 goal, and negotiators have plenty of homework before they reconvene to keep writing rules. They’ll need to give special attention to climate finance in the coming years — poorer countries will need money and expertise to adapt to climate change and deal with the effects of climate change that they’re already experiencing, and the Paris Agreement has so far delivered few answers to these questions.
Is Paris enough?
What we’ll see in the next few years is whether or not the Agreement ultimately came too late. The Paris Agreement is simply a framework for nations to cut emissions. If they don’t follow through — if they don’t actually cut their emissions — having a framework for how to do so is pointless. Negotiators are still figuring out the details of that framework, and that’s important. But, activists are warning, negotiators must be able to walk and chew gum. At the same time that the Paris Agreement is having the finishing touches applied, negotiators will also have to put the framework into effect and start slashing emissions.
So, while negotiators worked out the fine print, activists in Bonn for the summit pointed urgently at the elephant in the room: The yawning gap between the current amount of warming the planet is projected to experience (3 degrees Celsius by 2100), and the upper limit needed to keep the planet safe (less than 2 degrees).
“Countries are acting like, ‘Oh, we agreed there’s a problem,’ but the actions they’re taking are negligible,” James Hansen, the highly respected US climate scientist, told Politico.
It’s not just the US that activist accuse of dropping the ball. Europe is under fire for not embracing more ambitious goals than those it set in 2014. Germany is likely to miss its promised emissions reductions because of its continued reliance on coal. China’s reinvigorated economy is driving global emissions higher after three years of flatlining.
These voices ended up prompting countries to put in place a process lead by Fiji and Poland, called the Talanoa dialogue, that, if all goes well, will result in countries submitting new targets following next year’s summit, after the rulebook is finalized.