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COP23: ‘Non-state actors are driving the bus’

The US is blocking efforts to discuss immediate climate action but is getting plenty of pushback

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California is working with other state governments and environmental groups to provide an unofficial US presence in Bonn that's for strong climate action (Image: Gov. Brown Press Office)

As President Trump has announced his intention to withdraw the US government from the Paris Agreement and sent a letter to this effect to the UNFCCC, what are US government delegates doing in the negotiating rooms during the ongoing climate summit in Bonn? Negotiating as before.

“We have no instruction to do anything else,” a delegate in the US negotiating team told thethirdpole.net on the condition of anonymity.

Paul Bledsoe, who headed the White House climate team during Clinton’s presidency, said: “I’ve been speaking to members of this (US government) delegation. They expect the US to return to the Paris Agreement in 2020. They’ve decided to negotiate as usual so that their interests are protected in the meanwhile.”

Under the rules of the Paris Agreement, no country can withdraw for the first three years from the date it was ratified. As such, the US cannot begin its process of withdrawal before November 3, 2019, when the one-year notice period will start. The earliest the US can actually exit the Paris Agreement is November 3, 2020 – around the same time voters in the country will elect their next president.

Meanwhile, it has been business as usual for most of this summit. The US has blocked all attempts by developing countries to discuss what rich nations are doing now to combat climate change, “while the EU, Canada, Australia and some other countries hide behind the US”, said veteran negotiations observer Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at ActionAid International.

Largely due to US insistence – under George W Bush and then Barack Obama – the UNFCCC principle that rich nations should take most of the actions to control greenhouse gas emissions was diluted in the Paris Agreement. One of the founding principles of the UNFCCC is “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”, which recognised that since the start of the Industrial Age, rich nations have emitted most of the greenhouse gases that warm up the atmosphere.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was based on this principle and gave the responsibility of reducing emissions to industrialised nations – the main reason why the US, under George W Bush, refused to ratify it. While negotiating for the Paris Agreement, US delegates under the Obama administration repeatedly pointed out that China is currently the biggest emitter, and India third. That is why all 195 countries have committed to control their emissions under the agreement.

Writing the rulebook

This year’s climate summit is intended to write the rulebook for the Paris Agreement, which comes into force in 2020, and there have been repeated clashes in just about every part of the draft. As such, only three items on the agenda have shown any movement. Unless the ministers who are now gathering for the last three days of this summit – called the High Level Segment – are able to break some deadlocks, the rulebook will go into 2018 full of square brackets, signifying proposals on which there is no agreement.

The most important breakthrough on November 15 was around pre-2020 action. The group negotiating this text finally agreed to review how much money rich nations have given to poor nations to combat climate change in 2018 and 2020. It also agreed to request that all developed countries ratify the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol – though this may be largely symbolic as the phase ends in 2020. Importantly, it asks all governments to inform the UNFCCC secretariat – by May 1, 2018 – on what they have done to mitigate emissions, to adapt to climate change effects and to help other countries do the same by providing finance and technology transfer.

A major dialogue scheduled for the end of 2018 to discuss the Paris Agreement will now also discuss pre-2020 actions. There will be a separate stocktake of pre-2020 actions at next year’s climate summit in Poland. Working groups will be constituted to review all this.

This should be music to the ears of the Indian government delegation, which had spearheaded the demand to include pre-2020 action in the climate agenda. Before the breakthrough, C K Mishra, secretary in India’s ministry of environment, forests and climate change, had told the media: “CBDR [common but differentiated responsibilities], climate finance, climate justice –these are all matters of equity, so they are fundamental to us.”

Delegation leaders of the four BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) had met in the evening of November 13 and prepared a joint statement to say the same.

Another agreement that has satisfied most countries is over controlling emissions from agriculture and helping farmers adapt to climate change effects. The other is around how to handle the loss and damage being faced by such effects, though Harjeet Singh described that part of the draft as “very weak”.

"Developing countries expected this climate summit, under the presidency of Fiji, to be remembered for making a robust process that will help those who are battered by devastating hurricanes and rising sea levels,” said Singh.

"They wanted the issue of loss and damage to remain on the agenda of all future climate talks so that meaningful progress can be achieved. Instead, developed countries – led by the US – have only offered a one-off consultation to discuss finance, which will not take us far in ensuring that people get help once they are affected. The EU, Canada and Australia have been hiding behind the US. They have failed Fiji and failed the world’s climate-vulnerable people."

Climate finance

Most developing country delegates and NGO observers blame the US government for the square brackets and weak drafts, accusing its delegates of blocking agreement on most things that would increase the responsibility of developed countries. In response, delegates from the EU, Canada and US governments said repeatedly that they could not possibly meet the expectations of developing countries on paying for greenhouse gas emission mitigation or for adaptation, “because there simply isn’t enough public finance available”.

As the veteran US negotiator put it: “Developing countries have to realise that our governments are not in good financial shape. The only places in the world from which sufficient climate finances can be generated are the global bond and equity markets. There are encouraging signs, as pension funds move away from coal and oil.”

The issue of coal has led to the largest public spat between the US government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) during the summit. For the first time in years, the US delegation has not put up a pavilion and delegates have been careful to stay away from NGOs. One exception was a side event on coal, which was swamped by US groups opposed to the Trump administration. Most were still outside when the room filled up and so decided to hold a protest outside the closed door.



Unofficial US action

Since the start of the summit, NGOs, some state governments, thinktanks and academics have been making pointing out that not all Americans agree with President Trump’s view on the Paris Agreement. They have put up an “unofficial US pavilion” in the lawns outside the venue, and have been hosting and participating in many side events, signalling that state governments have been taking lots of climate actions and plan to continue.

“With a top down and bottom up (approach), we can reach critical mass,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California at an event for local and regional leaders. “When Trump backs out, it doesn’t mean anything. Cities4Climate [a global partnership to bring about change at the local and regional level] will pick up the slack and lead the clean energy revolution.”

The former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, reiterated this statement: “Since Trump is not working for climate change (action), it is all the more important for cities and mayors to take the lead. Nation-states will have to up their ambition (to tackle climate change). Non-state actors are driving the bus.”


This article is republished from The Third Pole


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