Rob Bailey
Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources
Rob Bailey speaks with Gitika Bhardwaj in a two-part interview about the recently concluded round of climate negotiations and the importance of agreeing a Paris 'rulebook' next year.
A replica of the Statue of Liberty is seen emitting smoke from its torch at the Rheinaue Park during the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference.A replica of the Statue of Liberty is seen emitting smoke from its torch at the Rheinaue Park during the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Photo: Getty Images.

Why was this round of COP, the annual UN climate change talks which finished last week, important? 

It was important for two reasons. One is it was the first COP (Conference of the Parties) after President Donald Trump announced America’s intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement so there was a question mark around what the politics were going to look like at these negotiations and what kind of role America would now play.

The second reason, 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 actually operate after 2020. It covers quite important things like what the framework in which countries will submit their pledges on emissions reductions will be and how governments will monitor, report and verify on 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 well below 2°C and the aspirational target of limiting it to 1.5°C. These are all extremely important elements.

Following Donald Trump’s announcement in June outlining America’s intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, there was a downsized US delegation to the talks this year as well as a controversial event organized by the US government with fossil fuel and nuclear energy representatives that prompted a protest. In contrast, a prominent ‘We Are Still In’ campaign was present from US states, cities and businesses that were showing their support for the agreement. What was the reaction like to the US this year? How did Trump’s policy shift have an impact on the atmosphere at the talks in general and also at the negotiating table in particular?

One of the interesting things with America’s 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 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 America 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 America with or without the federal government and it was an important signal to send.

In terms of the negotiating dynamics themselves, 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 America 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 America 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 America playing that role, there was something of a vacuum at these negotiations. 

An international alliance to phase out coal by 2030 was announced at the conference, and nearly 20 countries have said that they would be joining the Power Past Coal Alliance. The alliance aims to have 50 members by the next UN climate change summit in 2018. Why was this coalition created and will it be important for the push 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 continuing trying to do it through policies will not be quick enough. The more countries that can join in, the better.

It’s also very positive for UK and Canadian climate diplomacy. It’s just the kind of sort of thing we need to see happening in the run-up to 2018–20 period: these kinds of coalitions and statements of intent and also new targets 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 power 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 or work with them, even if it’s through informal dialogues, in order to squeeze coal out.

What can we expect over the next year ahead of the next COP in Poland?

It’s a key COP because there will be the 2018 deadline so everyone will want to get the rulebook agreed and there’s an awful lot left to do. What they don’t want is it to come to a cliff-edge in Poland. 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 and impartial so we could actually see a much less difficult and challenging 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. Are we going to 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. 

Read Part 2 of the interview on Medium for a look at how different countries including France, Germany and China approached the latest round of climate negotiations.