The Paris climate agreement was just the first step. Now the rulebook for how to carry out the accord is being written, and there are growing complaints that the United States and other wealthy countries are trying to manipulate the rules to protect polluters and weaken their own commitments.
This past week, climate negotiators from 178 countries were in Bangkok to draft those rules ahead of the United Nations climate conference in Poland in December. UN officials on Sunday described the outcome of the talks as "uneven progress." Activists who have been watching the talks were less charitable.
"When it comes to climate change actions, the message from the developed world to developing countries is: 'You just have to do it yourself'," said Mohamed Adow, the international climate lead for the group Christian Aid.
Two of most contentious issues, both still unresolved, are climate finance—the money needed to help developing countries deal with climate change—and transparency around how countries report progress on their Paris goals.
The U.S., Australia and Japan proposed rules in Bangkok that critics say effectively would allow commercial loans, which would have to be repaid with interest, to count as climate finance contributions. And China butted heads with the U.S. in arguing that developing countries should have more leniency in reporting their progress than developed countries.
"Progress has been made on most issues, but no issues have been fully resolved yet," Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said at the closing press conference.
The Bangkok meeting was intended to make up for slow progress at a May negotiating session in Bonn. The UN is now extending the December climate conference by a day to give negotiators more time.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is also getting more involved. In a speech on Monday, he urged world leaders to "use every opportunity" to resolve the sticking points and said he would be talking to them at the UN General Assembly later this month about the moral and economic incentives to take action on climate change.
"The time has come for our leaders to show they care about the people whose fate they hold in their hands," Guterres said. "We need them to show they care about the future—and even the present."
Gaming the Rules for Climate Finance?
Agreeing on the finance rules will be crucial. Countries are already facing expensive climate crises, and they will have to protect their populations against sea level rise, extreme weather and heat and drought that threatens food security. The poorest, particularly small island states that have contributed little to global warming, are among those most at risk.
Wealthy countries pledged in the Paris Agreement to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020 to help poorer countries reduce their emissions and deal with climate impacts. But the rules for where that money comes from and how it is counted are still being negotiated.
In Bangkok, several developed countries pushed for looser rules on what can be counted as climate finance. Activists say the result could mean poor countries pay more of the bill. For example, if developed countries were able to count climate-related loans to developing countries at face value, that could inflate their totals by some $20 billion, said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Developed countries also refused to discuss long-range targets for how much money might be provided beyond 2025.
One of the challenges is creating a framework to predict how much funding developed nations contribute in the future. "A lot of the developed countries don't want to even start those discussions," said Lucile Dufour, who was attending the talks with the French advocacy group Réseau Action Climat. "It's so polarized, we are not even able to have a proper discussion about it. It's extremely problematic."
"The Paris Agreement cannot be implemented without climate finance," Gebru Jember Endalew of Ethiopia, the chair of a group of 48 Least Developed Countries, said in statement after the Bangkok talks ended. "The failure of rich countries to deliver adequate resources has severe ramifications for people and communities in the Least Developed Countries and around the world that are already bearing the brunt of climate change on a daily basis."
While government negotiators avoided pointing fingers in public, activists laid the blame at the feet of U.S. President Donald Trump and other wealthy nations that sat silently by. Even though Trump declared over a year ago that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Agreement, it can't do so until 2020, and U.S. negotiators have been deeply involved in the talks.
"Under Trump, the U.S. has set about renegotiating the Paris Agreement to escape its historical responsibility and get better deal for the big polluters it serves," said Jesse Bragg of Corporate Accountability. "We cannot allow Trump to hold this agreement hostage."
"After contributing the most to cause the climate crisis, the U.S. now expects developing countries to clean up the mess with no help whatsoever," Meena Raman, legal advisor for Third World Network, said in a news release.
Another Stumbling Block: Reporting on Progress
The Paris Agreement was written with the expectation that every five years, countries would increase their commitments to climate action, and that they could be held accountable for meeting their goals.
The negotiations on how countries will account for meeting their climate pledges became almost totally gridlocked in Bangkok after China and a few other developing countries proposed different accounting standards depending on each nation's stage of development, Meyer said.
The work of finding a solution to that standoff and finishing the rest of the draft text for the Paris rulebook now falls to the officials who have been leading the negotiations and to Poland, which will host this year's UN climate conference in December. There are a few international meetings before then where the issues could be discussed, and activists are urging the European Union to help Poland create more opportunities.
"The negotiations are far behind where they should be at this stage," said Susan Biniaz, who was a lead climate negotiator with the State Department from 1989 until early 2017 and was in Bangkok for the meeting. But she remained optimistic that leaders will be able to nail down the final rules when the gather in Poland in December.
"I think the Parties will still reach agreement in Poland," Biniaz said. "It's almost become a ritual where the talks drag on forever, at some point everyone panics, and then they come up with solutions."