With Deadlines Approaching, Climate Negotiations Adjust to Life After Trump

Rob Bailey speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about the latest round of climate negotiations and the importance of agreeing a Paris ‘rulebook’ next year.

Interview Updated 24 July 2023 Published 21 November 2017 6 minute READ

Rob Bailey

Former Director, Energy, Environment and Resources Programme

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

What was the significance of the latest round of negotiations at the annual UN Climate Change Conference in Germany? 

It was important for two reasons. Firstly, it was the first Conference of Parties (COP) after US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, so there was a question mark around what the politics were going to look like at these negotiations.

Secondly, which is more important, is there is a deadline in 2018 for agreeing what the negotiators have been calling the ‘rulebook’ for the Paris Agreement which is essentially the rules of the game for how the agreement will operate after 2020. It covers important things like what the framework through which countries will submit their pledges on emissions reductions will be and how governments will monitor, report and verify their actions so that we can have confidence that they are committing to doing what they have pledged to do. It also includes the mechanisms through which governments should collectively assess the adequacy of their commitments against the Paris goals of keeping global warming to well below 2°C and the aspirational target of limiting it to 1.5°C which are all extremely important elements.

Following Donald Trump’s announcement, outlining his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, there was a reduced US delegation to the talks. In contrast, US states, cities and businesses launched a prominent ‘We Are Still In’ campaign in order to show their support for the agreement. What was the reaction to the US at the conference? 

One of the interesting things with the US withdrawal is the galvanizing effect it has had among other countries by bringing them closer together in their commitment to see the Paris Agreement become operational.

It was interesting to see the ‘We Are Still In’ initiative co-organized by Michael Bloomberg, recognizing the fact that a lot of emissions reductions action in the US is happening at the sub-national level through states and cities and corporations, and also recognizing that the federal government’s decision to disengage from the agreement doesn’t necessarily mean the US as a whole is going to become marginalized. So, this effort by Bloomberg to bring these non-state actors to talk about the action that they are still going to carry forwards – to have a ‘societal NDC’ is how they referred to it – is important because a lot of emissions reductions will continue to happen in the US, with or without the federal government.

Reductions in emissions will continue to happen in the US with or without the federal government.

In terms of the negotiations, there was this controversial event the US government organized with energy companies. We know that there have been conversations involving the US government about trying to keep coal within the global energy mix but at the same time there was also a speech given by the lead US negotiator that was pacifying in saying that the US will continue to try to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions although there was no mention of fossil fuels in those remarks. It’s possible that a bit of a disconnect between the Trump administration and the machinery of government could develop which is a disconnect that has been evident in other areas of US foreign policy.

What we didn’t see happening was the US playing a proactive role in the negotiations as it has done previously. The US is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world and also an influential developed country that has played an important role in setting expectations about where developed countries should align themselves within the negotiations. Without the US playing that role, there was something of a vacuum at these negotiations.

It was announced that an international alliance to phase out coal by 2030 would be created which nearly 20 countries have said they will be joining. The alliance aims to have 50 members by the next UN Climate Change Conference in 2018. How important could this coalition be for global efforts to phase out fossil fuels?

It’s a very positive step. One thing we know is that to have any hope of achieving the Paris goals, coal has to exit the global energy mix very rapidly. There’s no pathway that allows coal to continue to play a significant role without abatement. We know that there is still investment going into coal-fired power generation, particularly in Southeast Asia in a new capacity, so we need a global signal to ditch coal as quickly as possible. We need governments to take an old-fashioned, highly interventionist, command-and-control approach to stopping coal because trying to do it through policies will not be quick enough. The more countries that can join in then the better.

It’s also very positive for UK and Canadian climate diplomacy. It’s just the sort of thing we need to see happening in the run-up to 2018–20 period. These kinds of coalitions and statements of intent are important to get the momentum going and to increase ambition.

The big question for the coalition is to what extent they can bring in countries where squeezing coal out of the energy mix is going to be challenging. It’s reasonably easy for the UK to do that because we are at a point where there are days of coal-free power generation due to the progress we’ve made from renewables so we’re a long way on the path towards removing coal from our energy mix. But countries in other parts of the world are still developing coal in a new capacity, so the question is, how they can bring those countries on board in order to squeeze coal out.

Some of the world’s biggest coal users — China, the US, Germany and Russia — have not signed up to the Powering Past Coal Alliance yet. Can we expect some of them to join?

Given the failure this week of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to form a coalition government at home, it would be hard for her to make any announcements until she has a government in place so I think her hands are tied.

There should be a focus on engaging with China on the coal phase-out agenda.

But Germany would be a big win from a European perspective because they still have a lot of coal in the energy mix and also because they are very influential with Eastern European countries where coal is still very significant as well.

In terms of China, its coal use has gone up a little bit this year, in contrast to previous years where it’s been flat-lining, and therefore people have been talking about whether coal has now begun to peak in China. This could be a bit of a blip looking at the data, but at the end of the day, China is cautious yet active in investing in new coal-fire capacity overseas so, politically, it will be difficult for China to sign up to something like this at the moment but hopefully not impossible. 

French President, Emmanuel Macron, announced he would be helping to close the funding gap left by the US for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. How far was this a bit of political opportunism from the French leader?

These announcements are all political in one sense or another. In a way, the name of the game is to make sure that leaders — whether its Macron or Jinping — see political benefit in making progressive announcements which are going to be good for the climate and therefore good for humanity.

This is what governments and civil society need to be doing as we move towards 2018 when the facilitative dialogue — or the Talanoa Dialogue as it is now called in honour of the Fijian presidency of the COP this year — is set to begin, the purpose of which, is to take stock of how countries are progressing towards meeting their collectively agreed long-term goals to decarbonize the global economy and then figure out what options might be available to ‘enhance’ their ambition. 

What we need to see happening is governments talking to one another and agreeing to increase the ambition of their NDCs in time for the resubmission deadline in 2020. Governments need to get their act together quickly but that’s not going to happen through the negotiators — they don’t have the political remit — it’s going to have to happen at the highest political level. So creating stages for leaders like Macron to create momentum, can make these sorts of commitments he announced, an important part of the process.

Syria announced it would be signing up to the Paris Agreement too, following Nicaragua who also signed the accord last month, making the US the only country intending to no longer be a part of the agreement.

While the Syrian civil war rages on, why has the Assad regime decided to do this now, and what does this mean for the embattled regime’s relations with the international community as it is still subject to European and US sanctions?

If you’re going to sign up to the agreement then the COP is the best place to do it. It was a symbolic announcement in that it now leaves the US as the only country outside of the club.

If you’re going to sign up to the Paris Agreement then the COP is the best place to do it.

Strategically, why might Syria have done it? The simple explanation is it’s because of international peer pressure from all of the other countries who have signed up.

The Assad regime might even be thinking that at some point or another they are going to be transitioning out of a horrendous period of civil war to a period of rebuilding and they want to make sure they have the full support of the international donor community and the best way to do that is through signing international agreements.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech at the conference received some criticism. The German government has previously been seen as a climate leader but now it looks like the country could miss the goals it pledged in Paris in 2015. How far has domestic politics affected Merkel’s recent climate leadership?

It’s hard to say. Germany’s climate leadership is built upon the Energiewende, which is the big national programme to drive renewables onto the grid at volume, encouraging the costs to come down. This has been valuable to the whole world because we have all benefitted from the falling costs of solar PV for example. Now the Energiewende and other renewable technologies in Germany have their own unstoppable momentum so I suspect that will continue regardless of what shape the German coalition government takes.

Coal is the big question mark because it’s still in the German energy mix and the country has a significant coal lobby which has been successful in keeping coal in the mix so far and has also been successful on pushing back on tighter vehicle emissions standards for German car manufacturers in the EU.

So I would argue that German climate leadership has always been slightly nuanced as a result of its domestic political economy and therefore I think there won’t be a big shift in the stances it has previously taken.

What role did China, developing countries and small island states play at the talks?

There was an expectation, because it was a Fijian presidency this year, as well as the first COP hosted by a small island state, that there would be more of a focus on issues that are important for small island states, like loss and damage, adaptation and climate finance. But there weren’t really any big blow ups on loss and damage for example. Some of the people I spoke to said the small island states have been more muted then usual and that was probably because they didn’t want to create too many problems for the Fijian presidency which has to remain neutral.

There was a bit of frustration from vulnerable countries in general around the climate finance agenda. We saw some pushes to get clarity for a process by which developed countries that have made climate finance commitments will be held accountable for delivering on those similarly to how countries are accountable over their emissions reductions. But this was met with some resistance from some developed countries.

Why did China not take a more central role given the vacuum left by the US? There has been a lot written about how Xi Jinping has indicated a willingness for China to defend the global rules-based order and the international trade regime, as well as his defence of the Paris Agreement at his Davos speech earlier this year, and it’s easy to extrapolate from that, that China wants to lead. But I don’t know whether China is at that point yet particularly on the climate agenda. China is still very cautious about stepping into a role where it is a global superpower and I think it’s careful about choosing where it is going to invest its international political capital.

What we need is positive political momentum that includes everyone.

China is also mindful of making pledges that it will be held accountable for by the international community. Though the pledges are non-binding, if you make a pledge and then don’t deliver, there’s a downside. No country wants to be the one failing to meet their commitments. China is therefore reluctant to put forward an NDC that it can’t deliver. The current NDC for China has emissions peaking by 2030 but all the indications are that China can achieve that well ahead of schedule.

On the other hand, if China can easily achieve its target, it can increase its ambition relatively easily without compromising its ability to achieve it. From a Chinese point of view, that becomes interesting, because China is the world’s biggest exporter of renewable technologies. It’s building a lot of capacity in electric vehicles and battery manufacturing and wants to become the leading exporter in those too. So, greater ambition in other markets, particularly developed economies, creates potential opportunities for its exports.

The question is, whether China can use its potential ability to increase its own NDC at relatively little difficulty as a way of extracting greater ambition from other countries, which it can then use to create new export opportunities for its manufacturing sector. There is a strong argument for China that it would be economically beneficial for them, but they are still very cautious, and I find it difficult to see them becoming a climate leader before 2020.

What we need is positive political momentum that includes China but also everyone else. In the run up to Paris, China and the US were the main architects, but now that the US is missing in action, the question is, what alliance of countries can take their place to create similar momentum ahead of 2018?

What can we expect over the year ahead in the run-up to the next UN Climate Change Conference in Poland?

It’s a key COP, because everyone will want to get the rulebook agreed ahead of the deadline in 2018, but there’s a lot left to do. What they don’t want is it to come to a cliff-edge in Poland next year. They will want to make meaningful progress in the intersessional meetings between now and next year’s conference.

Next year is also when the whole facilitative dialogue conversations need to get moving in earnest about increasing ambition and taking stock of actions countries have taken to date so I think it will be the most important COP since Paris.

The fact that Poland has traditionally been a blocker in Europe on progressive climate change action, and continues to have a strong coal sector, doesn’t have to be a problem because COP presidency countries are expected to be neutral so we could actually see a much less difficult Poland than we would expect them to be.

The most important things to look out for will be the political signals sent outside of the negotiations. Could we be at a point at the end of 2018 where climate diplomacy takes place outside of the negotiations like it did in the run up to Paris? I hope so.