MARRAKECH, Morocco—By the close of the latest climate talks, nearly 200 countries had engaged the bureaucratic gears for converting the text of last year’s global climate accord into action. Backed by major businesses and others, they reaffirmed their promise “to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our time.”
But whether the world rallies fast enough to prevent the worst climate impacts is more uncertain now than when negotiations began two weeks ago in Marrakech.
The election of climate denier Donald Trump threatens to make the United States, the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, a renegade on climate action.
“When we came to Marrakech, it was on a high note,” Alden Meyer, strategy and policy director at the science advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, said. In the lead up to these talks, the Paris climate agreement entered into force, and faster than expected. Nations agreed to ramp-down potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration, and the aviation industry reached consensus on a strategy for lowering their carbon footprint.
Since the outcome of the U.S. election, Meyer said, “there’s been concern expressed around these halls.”
However, in the final stretch of the conference, the tone largely shifted to one of increasing confidence and optimism, at least publicly, that the momentum on climate action would not be halted by any single country.
Here are some of the examples of how momentum continued at the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22):
Negotiators agreed to complete the rules for the Paris accord by 2018 and do an assessment of climate action that year.
Nations held the first meeting of the Parties of the Paris Agreement (called CMA1); the biggest decision was to signal their intent to bring a major fund for adaptation under the accord.
Two major initiatives were launched to help developing countries fulfill the goals of the global agreement: the NDC Partnership and the Capacity-Building Initiative for Transparency.
The first countries (Canada, Germany, Mexico and the U.S.) released visions for deeply decarbonizing their economies by 2050.
A group of 47 developing countries pledged to transition their economies to run entirely on renewables, and to make the switch by 2030-2050, the latest.
To show solidarity for urgent climate action, countries released the one-page Marrakech Action Proclamation reaffirming their commitments, and more than 300 companies published an open letter to U.S. leaders asserting their dedication to action.
“People came in with action on their mind and they are going out with a stronger commitment to that action,” David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resource Institute, told InsideClimate News. The central thread of this conference, he added, is “people want to make clear they are not going to be held back by anything.”
This was the underlying message of statements by high-level officials from China, Germany and others. It was also echoed by lame-duck Obama administration officials including special envoy for climate change Jonathan Pershing.
Speaking to a huddle of reporters in the final hours of the talks, Pershing said: “I’d suggest the beginning of the week, the election was the discussion and by the end of the meeting, the climate change issue was the discussion.”
But not everyone is buying it.
“People are just talking about, with or without the U.S. we are still in. But I just feel like we are talking about half the story,” Kashmala Kakakhel, a researcher at the Pakistan Center for Philanthropy, told InsideClimate News. “The other half is, you are letting [the U.S.] go free for all their historical emissions and…that means the burden comes on all the other countries.”
‘This Is One Election Out of Many’
The Trump shock did not halt the formal discussions, sometimes heated, on how to rapidly implement the Paris agreement.
“This is one election out of many and the mood here is eyes down, sleeves rolled up, let’s get on with it,” Rachel Kyte, special representative of the United Nations Secretary General, said.
The main goal of this conference was to start the lengthy, technical process of developing rules for the climate accord and setting up the framework necessary to carry out its many mandates on mitigation (preventing further climate impacts), adaptation (preparing for locked-in impacts) and loss and damage (the results of the impacts that can’t be prevented or sufficiently responded to).
This largely translated to teeing up work for the coming years. In 2018, for example, countries have to complete the rulebook for the Paris accord. This is also when there will be a “facilitative dialogue” for countries to assess their climate action up to that point.
By the end of 2020, countries should submit updated climate pledges, called nationally determined contributions. That’s also the year many nations, including a group of 47 developing countries, are aiming to have completed their long-term climate action plans.
According to WRI’s Waskow, these talk set up 2018 “as a key moment that can help serve as a springboard rally for increasing action” and making 2020 “the moment by which countries are meant to come forward with some kind of enhanced actions.”
“It’s important the United States remain at the table to ensure solid rules holding countries accountable for their promises,” Elliot Diringer, executive vice president for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said in a statement following the conclusion of the talks.
Small but critical steps were taken on loss and damage at COP22. Negotiators conducted the first review of the group overseeing research and action on this issue, called the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts, or WIM, and decided to do a second, more rigorous review in 2019.
Nations also approved a preliminary five-year work plan for this group, which will be finalized next year, to push ahead on researching issues such as slow onset events, like sea level rise and desertification, and how climate impacts will displace people from their homes.
Climate finance proved to a be sticking point at the negotiations, as it has in past years. Developing countries wanted reassurances from developed countries that they would scale-up funding, especially for adaptation efforts, in the future. Related to this, they also wanted to bring what’s called the Adaptation Fund into the umbrella of the Paris agreement to better ensure this source of funding does not disappear.
Some headway was made on these issues. For example, European Union nations committed $80 million to the Adaptation Fund during the talks. During the first-ever meeting of the Conference of the Parties to Parties, negotiators signaled the fund will eventually be included in the Paris accord.
Another source of tension in the finance talks was a roadmap released by developed countries for how they would fulfill a 2009 promise to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries on climate efforts. While developed countries insisted they are on track, developing countries raised issues with the accounting. There was no real resolution on this issue.
Developing countries were vocal in their displeasure what they saw as a lack of progress on finance.
“There remains outstanding issues which require further discussion after Marrakech,” said a Thailand official at the closing plenary for COP 22, speaking behalf of the negotiating group G77 and China. “The group places a priority on scaling up finance, in particular adaptation finance. There can be no enhanced action without enhanced support.”
This point was underscored by others, including Maldives environmental official Amjad Abdulla, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS): We need to address many fundamental climate finance questions moving forward, he said. “Will it be new and additional? How will public dollars be leveraged for private investments? And what will be the balance between mitigation and adaption be?”
New Climate Change Pledges and Funds
Outside of the formal talks, a series of new initiatives, funds and climate pledges were made.
For example, the NDC Partnership was launched to offer technical and financial support to developing countries to help them fulfill their climate pledges. Additionally, a new fund called the Capacity-Building Initiative for Transparency was announced to help developing countries build capacity to not only monitor and track but fulfill their existing climate pledges and build upon them. Eleven countries pledged upwards of $50 million towards it.
Moreover, more than 300 companies in an open letter stated their commitment to climate action and encouraged the U.S. leadership to establish regulations anding funding to help them with this goal.
Four countries—Canada, Germany, Mexico and the United States—also published their climate action plans through 2050. Germany, the first to make its announcement, has aimed to effectively stop using fossil fuels and curb its missions by between 80 and 95 percent by mid-century. The United States followed with a 111-page optimistic report that outlined multiple alternative pathways to becoming “deeply decarbonized” by 2050.
Whether the United States pursues any of those paths remains to be seen, as do the prospects for common action with Mexico and Canada. Both countries declared over the summer common objectives with the U.S. to generate half their electricity from clean sources, including nuclear power, by 2025.
Some of the strongest leadership on climate action came from the most vulnerable nations, however. On the final day of talks, a group of 47 developing nations committed to running entirely on renewable energy sources “as rapidly as possible.”
During the course of the talks, 11 more nations ratified the Paris agreement including Australia, Japan, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. This brings the total of participating countries up to 111 countries.
Stakes of Failure Continue to Grow
The stakes of failure were repeatedly recognized, from activists in demonstrations at the COP to new reports to the speeches by climate leaders.
In a provisional statement released last week, for example, the World Meteorological Organization wrote: “It is very likely that 2016 will be the hottest year on record, with global temperatures even higher than the record-breaking temperatures in 2015.”
This stark reality was recognized in the Marrakech Action Proclamation, where countries wrote: “Our climate is warming at an alarming and unprecedented rate and we have an urgent duty to respond.”
“It’s within our power to put the planet back on a better track,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in remarks that never mentioned Trump, but did not have to. “Doing that requires holding ourselves accountable to the hard truth. It requires holding ourselves accountable to facts, not opinion; to science, not theories that haven’t been proven and can’t be proven; and certainly not to political bromides and slogans.”