A much-anticipated meeting of nearly 200 nations began in Bonn, Germany, on Monday to push forward global climate change action at a time when the United States is poised to do the opposite.
From now until May 17, climate delegates will try to thrash out the most formidable details involved in implementing the Paris climate agreement, even as a thick cloud of uncertainty hovers over the future of the historic global climate treaty.
All eyes will be on the delegation from the United States—though it is unusually small and expected to keep a low profile—while the White House decides whether to quit the treaty or stay in and break the carbon-cutting promises of the Barack Obama administration.
"We are focused on ensuring that decisions are not taken at these meetings that would prejudice our future policy, undermine the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, or hamper our broader objective of advancing U.S. economic growth and prosperity," a State Department official wrote in an email to InsideClimate News when asked about the U.S. role in Bonn.
The U.N.'s top climate official would not comment on the what-if scenarios. "I think we should really observe and wait until a decision has been taken," said Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Others seemed to be preparing for a U.S. exit. "We need to understand that this conversation about staying or not in Paris ... is a political decision. This is a ploy that will not and should not detract attention from what should be at the heart of why we are here," Paula Caballero, global director of the climate program at the research and advocacy group World Resources Institute, said at a press conference on Monday.
"The bottom line is the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris agreement would create difficulties, but not insurmountable" ones, Caballero said.
Here's the InsideClimate News guide on the Bonn talks and what to watch for:
What's at stake in the Bonn climate talks?
Under the Paris Agreement, countries vowed to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and possibly to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. But the world is far behind in meeting these goals, according to the United Nations Environment Program. The conference is an opportunity to build pressure to raise the ambition level of countries' emissions targets. It's also key for advancing the so-called "Paris rulebook," the rules for putting the accord into practice. Countries are striving to finish the rulebook by end of 2018.
Why are all eyes on the United States?
The big concern is that if the U.S. withdraws from the Paris accord, that would dramatically set back efforts to raise ambition. There's also concern that other countries would backslide on their current goals, pushing the 2-degree target even further out of reach. The U.S. is the second-highest emitter of greenhouse gases today and historically the largest.
Who is the U.S. sending to the talks?
The U.S. has sent a small team of mostly Obama-era officials. Trigg Talley, the deputy special envoy for climate change since 2013, is leading the delegation. He's joined by six officials from the State Department and the White House. The U.S. sent 44 people from across eight federal agencies to this same meeting last year.
What will be the U.S. role at the talks?
Under Obama, the U.S. played a crucial leadership role, especially in the area of transparency, or ensuring that each country's progress in meeting its pledges would be tracked. At Bonn, countries will continue to develop the technical details on transparency under the Paris Agreement.
Countries will also question each other on their progress toward meeting short-term climate goals. The U.S. is among the 18 developed countries and 10 developing countries up for review this year. The Obama administration filed a report in January detailing its progress toward meeting the goal of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The Donald Trump administration last month responded to an initial round of questions from China and others with boilerplate answers about energy independence and competitiveness. Trump officials will present this report later this week.
What are other key issues on the Bonn agenda?
Heated discussions are expected on the role of outside observers, such as fossil fuel companies, in the climate talks. Led by Ecuador, several countries have proposed limiting the influence of fossil fuel interests at the talks. Another topic to watch will be the 2018-2019 budget for the UNFCCC, the organization administering the Paris Agreement. The U.S. has long been the largest supporter of the UNFCCC, but Trump's budget proposal for 2018 calls for zeroing out those funds.