UN climate summit: Cleaning the kitchen

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

If you’re looking for a news story full of fun and excitement next week… don’t look at the annual UN climate summit, which starts in Bonn on Monday.

To use a cricket analogy, it’s not the Ashes. It’s not the wristy Indian strokemakers coming to town, not the knock-your-head-off South African quick bowlers, nor the glorious unpredictability of the Caribbean.

With due respect to Kiwis everywhere… yeah, it’s kind of New Zealand. In Birmingham, on a damp Tuesday in May.

Worthy, but probably slow going. Attritional, even. Not one to get the juices flowing.

It could have been so different if the nation with the presidency of the talks this year, Fiji, had decided to hold the conference on its home territory. For delegates, Suva in southern hemisphere summer is a far more attractive prospect than grey Bonn in grey November. More importantly, two weeks in a small developing country surrounded by warming, acidifying and rising seas might have concentrated the minds of ministers from nations with considerably higher carbon output.

But… the Fijians having decided they’d find it hard to host, things defaulted back to Bonn, home of the UN climate convention secretariat.

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The talks won't be in Fiji, but Fijian concerns will be front and centre in the talks. Image: Franklin Samir Dattein, CC licence

So far, so meta.

Unfortunately, when we get down into the body of the negotiations, it doesn’t get any more colourful. Certainly a lot less so than the summit that features most prominently in recent memory, that in Paris in December 2015, which concluded with arguably the most important deal in the history of humankind’s wrestle with climate change – the Paris Agreement, the first time that every country in the world pledged to constrain its greenhouse gas emissions.

By contrast, the main task facing negotiators this fortnight is… to get things in good shape for next year’s summit.

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Coal - not least German coal - is a central point of contention. Image: Bert Kaufmann, CC Licence

That set of talks will see the first real test of what’s known as the ‘ratchet mechanism’ of the Paris Agreement. 

Basically, the emission-cutting pledges that countries submitted in 2015 aren’t enough collectively to achieve the temperature goals that governments agreed. Having decided to keep global warming since pre-industrial times ‘well below 2 Celsius’ and to try to keep it below 1.5ºC, the current pledges put us on target for about 3ºC.

Governments knew about this ‘emissions gap’ when they signed the Paris deal, and the ‘ratchet mechanism’ is the process by which they’re supposed to persuade each other to progressively promise bigger emission cuts until the gap closes and brings the Paris temperature goals within reach. And next year’s talks see something called the ‘facilitative dialogue’, which is the first attempt to do just that.

The reason why many want to see it succeed is, very simply, that without a fairly quick step-change, the vision of a 1.5ºC limit on global warming will be out of reach. That’s the case whether or not you choose to accept the conclusions of the recent controversial scientific paper that argued there’s a little more time than previously thought.

But for next year’s summit to succeed, this year’s needs to get a lot of business out of the way. Cleaning the kitchen so there’s room to cook a creative dish next time. That business includes agreeing how the facilitative dialogue will work, and tying up as much of possible of the ‘rulebook’ – the details that will translate the various elements of the Paris Agreement into processes that mean something.

Eyes on the US    

It’s tempting to think that the summit will be dominated by Donald Trump. 

A US delegation will be there – contrary to those reports that are still getting written, with an amazing lack of regard for reality, claiming that the country has quit the Paris Agreement. (It hasn’t – and if you think it will do so during President Trump’s current term of office, you’re welcome to have a wager with me.)

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Fiji itself was battered by Cyclone Yasi in 2011. Image: Tatters, CC licence

Quite how the US delegation behaves we’ll have to see, but actually the mood music is quite good, as Reuters reported a few days ago. And in one particular aspect of the Paris Agreement – how carbon emissions are monitored and verified – the politics of Trump do allow the US to play a constructive role if it wishes. 

It’s going to attract little but derision for a well-publicised plan at the talks to promote coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, as – erm – a solution to climate change. Which is true in the same way that hammering yourself on the head is a solution to a hangover.

Nevertheless… President Trump’s decision not to abide by the promises his predecessor made on cutting emissions and helping developing countries with finance doesn’t make the talks any easier. US diplomatic muscle played a significant role in securing the Paris Agreement. Now it’s not in the game, and no other country is able or willing to fill the carrots-and-sticks void.

There will also be a whole bunch of other important Americans in town – Americans such as the multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg and his fellow leading lights in the ‘We’re Still In’ movement, which is determined to make up for Federal inaction by ensuring that states, the private sector and communities collectively fulfil the Obama-era pledges. That should make for a few fireworks.

Putting the 'coal' in 'coalition'    

So, we can expect US-watching to be a major theme of the fortnight. Two other nations to watch are Fiji and Germany. As president of the conference, Fiji has quite a lot of say on what issues get highlighted. This time round it’s the ocean, naturally. Also, Fiji wants to see progress  on what are termed the ‘solidarity issues’:

  • adaptation (how developing countries prepare for climate change impacts, with the help of richer countries)
  • loss and damage, the process that acknowledges the west’s historical responsibility for climate change but has yet to work out exactly what to do with that acknowledgement
  • and capacity-building.

Germany, the physical location for the summit, is in a particularly interesting political position. Long lauded by many as a ‘green’ champion for its investment in renewable energy, its emissions remain stubbornly high due to continued reliance on coal. It’s also not covered itself in glory by feather-bedding its car industry softly enough for the VW emissions scandal to happen.

Following last month’s general election, Angela Merkel is attempting to set up a ‘Jamaica coalition’ government to include the Green Party - which is demanding that coal and cars be seriously tackled as a price for joining.

The main UK item of interest is also coal-related: specifically, whether the coal phaseout alliance recently established with Canada is able to announce any new recruits. Logically that should be possible given that so many countries are on the road to ditching the black stuff - but UK diplomatic muscle is being consumed by Brexit, so we'll have to see whether any other nations have yet been brought into the phaseout fold.

Electric progress    

As a backdrop to negotiations, the physical and societal worlds continue to pepper the climate change landscape with facts and happenings. This year’s extraordinary series of extreme weather events, including hurricanes in the US (and further east), floods in South Asia and extreme heat in Australia, has probably generated more headlines about climate change impacts being ‘here’ than ever before, even though science has not yet formally linked many of those happenings to climate change.

Meanwhile, rather than the usual submersion beneath statistics about how cheap renewable energy is becoming (although they do exist), the most striking ‘human world’ announcements this year concern electric vehicles. Not only are we seeing big players like Volvo and GM make big announcements, newcomers such as Dyson are also threatening to disrupt the status quo.

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Car companies such as Volvo are accelerating towards the electric future. Image: Vattenfall, CC licence

We’re also seeing that massive sums of private money are flowing into ‘green and clean’ tech – a trillion dollars a year, according to the World Bank subsidiary the International Finance Corporation, which is giving some optimism that investors, if not international negotiations, will keep the Paris targets within reach.

One sobering thing that’s likely to emerge is news that during 2017, global emissions crept up after three years of remaining flat. 

Nothing to do with Trump; rather, economic growth in China accelerated in the first half of the year, including in mining and industry. 

Given that the changed Chinese model of economic growth was the single biggest factor behind the global emissions plateau, it’ll be a surprise if this year's economic uptick isn’t reflected by scientists in the emissions assessment they usually release during the UN negotiations.

Although high-carbon advocates will doubtless seize on the news as evidence that the climate-change-combatting world is falling apart, it isn’t. 

The three-year plateau was unexpected and absolutely remarkable, overturning the previous global pattern of decades that saw economic and emissions growth marching inexorably hand in hand. Against that backdrop, one uptick in the longer-term global pattern of emissions restraint shouldn’t be overplayed.

Nevertheless, combined with news that carbon dioxide concentrations rose last year at the fastest rate in at least 150 years will concentrate minds at the talks. The reasons behind that rise include burning fossil fuels – but also changes in the natural world that reduced the extent to which it absorbed CO2. 

Which may, in turn, be driven by climate change.   

And which in turn again is one more reason why a huge number of people now heading to Bonn, including the Fijians and their ocean neighbours, are determined that all of the housekeeping gets done so the kitchen is clear to cook up some more intense emission-cutting in a year’s time.

Just don't expect it to be a fortnight of thrills.