Not a week goes by without dire warnings from scientists that we are on course to fail in our obligations to halt climate change. With the US now planning to withdraw from the Paris agreement, it could be up to other nations to step up to the plate, writes Ross Davies in the latest edition of Overseas.
When it was unveiled on the evening of 12 December 2015 that a new global climate change pact had been signed in Paris, some saw it as a new dawn not only for collective action over the fate of the planet – but international diplomacy as well.
Looking back at the images of jubilation on that night, in a non-descript convention centre on the outskirts of the French capital, it seems like another lifetime ago. A simpler time. Many of the leaders involved in the negotiations, including US President Obama, French President Francois Hollande and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon have since moved on from office.
On the same day the Paris agreement was sealed, on the other side of the Atlantic, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was addressing a typically raucous crowd of supporters – and protesters – in the white-picketed town of Aitken, South Carolina. On the GOP man’s agenda: the usual fare of Hillary-bashing, promises to dismantle Obama policies and a bizarre rant on low water pressure shower heads.
It’s not likely that many – if any – of the delegates celebrating on the floor of Le Bourget conference centre gave Trump much of a chance of being elected the following November. The convergence of these two worlds, at that time, seemed almost impossible. We all know the rest.
Fast forward three years, and the halcyon hopes of December 2015 have taken an unexpected turn. The US – the most influential player at the table in Paris under Obama –intends to withdraw from the agreement. President Trump, who campaigned aggressively on a promise to return the US coal industry to former glories, believes the accord to be a “bad deal” for the country.
Some fear the US’ decision to pull out from the Paris agreement could mean its basic target – to keep global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – will be missed, as other countries also choose to withdraw.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too gloomy in our outlook. After all, the US constitutes only one of the Paris accord’s 195 signatories. Lest we are tempted to get sucked into debate around American exceptionalism, other countries are evidently doing their bit for the cause.
As mentioned further down, China and India’s respective love affairs with coal are now on the wane, with renewables investment growing all the time. Smaller nations, too, are also setting a good example.
As revealed in a recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Morocco has commissioned the biggest concentrated solar power plant in the world, while also ramping up its natural gas imports. The North African country is forecast to derive 42% of its energy needs from renewables by 2020.
According to Climate Action Tracker, Gambia also deserves praise for its plans to reduce emissions, which are centred around a large-scale reforestation project.
So, not all doom and gloom then. But there remains a broad cross section of the scientific community who fear the deal was never muscular enough in the first place to force collective action from nations.
This is because at the heart of the Paris agreement lies a good faith deal – when the pact comes into force next year, it will be up to each country to set its own target for emissions reductions, with further goals renewed every five years.
As an essentially non-binding agreement, some environmentalists believe the Paris accord – while a heartening example of international diplomacy at work – should form part of an even bigger deal. But given that the deal eventually hammered out in 2015 came on the back of almost two decades’ worth of testy to-and-froing, might it be too late in the day to set the ball rolling on a new global agreement?
“Yes, there’s certainly that risk,” says Bob Ward, policy and communications director,
Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics.
“The Paris agreement was a tremendous achievement, but we know what those countries are planning to do collectively is nowhere near enough. In fact, it’s more consistent with us experiencing 3 degrees Celsius of global warming by the end of the century, which would be really dangerous. We will have to wait and see what proposals they bring to the table ahead of the 2020 UN climate change summit.”
While the host nation for the summit is yet to be announced – UK and Italy are believed to be frontrunners – the Conference of Parties is set to be a tense affair.
“I don’t think the progress presented at the summit is going to be sufficient,” says Ward. “There is now a real danger that we are going to commit ourselves to either having to make very rapid changes – that are likely to be disruptive in terms of reducing emissions – or we are going to end up experiencing a degree of global warming that will have a very serious impact.”
Extreme weather events of the last two decades, from Hurricane Katrina to Russian heatwaves – not to mention devastating floods in Pakistan in 2010 – indicate climate change is not on the horizon, but something that is already well in motion. Have we already crossed the Rubicon?
“At some level, this is a truism,” says Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist and professor at Pennsylvania State University.
“We are already seeing some dangerous climate change impacts in the US alone, such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and California wildfires last year. These are as a result of our failure to act meaningfully over the past two decades.
“We are committed to even more from the warming in the pipeline, and the only way we can prevent ever-worsening climate change threats is by acting, at the international level, in a coordinated fashion, to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible.”
One the most persistent question marks around the fate of the Paris agreement is whether it can prevail without US participation. Obama’s engagement with China during the early stages of talks is now hailed as one of the former President’s finest hours – and a crucial component towards the eventual inking of the pact.
On the face of it, Trump’s planned withdrawal is regretful on many levels. Not only could it see the US fall behind in its efforts to reduce its carbon emissions, it could also potentially create a sizeable blackhole in funding – particularly for emerging nations reliant on climate finance. Only $1 billion of the $3bn pledged by Obama to a climate change fund reached its target before he left office; Trump is yet to issue any backing.
For all this, though, Ward still holds out hope that, the current White House notwithstanding, could yet decide its own environmental future at a state level.
“As the US is the world’s second biggest emitter after China, its withdrawal would be a blow on many fronts,” he says. “However, Trump gives the impression that he’s already withdrawn, but he hasn’t. The withdrawal process won’t take place until next year. A lot could change in the interim.
“There are also signs that many within the country are unhappy with the decision. The state of California has already stated that it is going to pursue the goals set out by the Paris agreement regardless.”
“The withdrawal isn’t a foregone conclusion,” agrees Mann. “Even without Trump’s support, the US has an excellent chance still of making good on its Paris commitments due to the tremendous action that is taking place at the municipal, city, state levels, and through multi-state consortia for pricing carbon and incentivising renewable.”
Elsewhere, Ward has been impressed by developments in Asia – traditionally the world’s biggest consumer of fossil fuels. China has emerged as the largest producer of renewables on the planet, while investments in Indian solar power reached record levels in 2018.
“Both those countries are moving in the right direction,” he says. “They understand the economics of investing in clean energy. China, in particular, is aware of the benefits of the move to low-carbon. Beijing sees it as a race.”
Still though, there are concerns that Trump’s intransigence – some might call it denial – over climate change might have a spill-over influence on other national governments’ environmental policy. Indeed, Brazil’s newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro has hinted he could remove his country from the Paris agreement, as well as pledging to relax rules on deforestation in the Amazon.
“The rise of right-wing, climate-denying leaders like Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil poses a huge threat to the multilateral approach to the global commons,” fears Lucy Cadena, climate justice and energy coordinator at Friends of the Earth International.
“The Paris agreement should have been a starting point, propelling us to urgent action – instead we see global geopolitics pulling our earth closer to the brink of disaster.”
The issue of climate change might be a global one, but individual companies and industries have their own part to play – potentially setting out more ambitious targets than those created at government level for the Paris agreement.
For instance, the Swedish Shipowners Association, a national trade body, recently announced plans to phase out the use of fossil fuels by 2045 – a bold move for a heavy fuel industry not even included in the Paris pact. “I would actually say that the industry is ahead of politicians in this regard,” asserts managing director Richard Engström.
As for the fate of Paris, Mann believes “it gets us a foot in the door, but there’s much more work that needs to be done”. While the advice of climatologists, such as Mann, evidently needs to be heeded like never before, progress will ultimately rest upon skilled and committed political leadership – “something we don’t have at the moment,” says Ward.
There’s hope this could change. Just as 12 December 2015 has gone down in the history books, it is perhaps worth pencilling a red circle around Wednesday 4 November 2020 in the calendar. It’s the date set for the US’ official withdrawal from the Paris agreement.
It also happens to fall on the day after the country’s next presidential election.
Read more features like this in the latest edition of Overseas, available here.