The UN climate talks in Marrakech (known as COP22) have been buzzing for the past week, but there seems to be a determination that the shock US election victory of Donald Trump should not derail the Paris climate agreement.
Walking past the huge US pavilion in the climate village it is difficult to imagine that, next year, the US will not be participating. But that could be the reality, if the suggestions that Trump is considering pulling out of the UNFCCC entirely turn out to be true. When you are surrounded by thousands of people who dedicate their lives to taking action on climate change, it’s perhaps not surprising that many find it difficult to believe that Trump will really follow through on his campaign pledges on climate. I’ve heard many activists, scientists and even politicians this week claiming that President Trump will inevitably see sense on climate once he is in power. But the quiet and intense huddles involving US negotiators, outside the tents in the Bab Ighli climate village, suggest an urgent desire to safeguard the Paris agreement in the face of an impending storm.
With a vacancy for global climate leadership about to emerge, the European Union has announced that it is ready to fill the gap. Alongside announcements from China on their continued commitment to tackling climate change, EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Canete delivered a strong speech to the conference on Wednesday, stating that the Paris agreement is both irreversible and non-negotiable. Canete assured the participants that the EU “will stand firm on shaky ground”, and that “we are on the right side of history”. In a later panel discussion, organised by IEEP, he was similarly bullish, if realistic, about the challenges ahead.
But, beyond the strong words, how does the EU’s commitment stack up? And what are the implications for the UK, as it prepares to step away from the EU at a moment when international solidarity is needed?
Concern that UK and EU momentum could be slowing
The annual Germanwatch Climate Change Performance Index gives some indications regarding progress. Launched at COP22 earlier this week, the index gives an overview of the climate performance of the biggest CO2 emitting countries. For both the EU and the UK the verdict gives some cause for concern. Whilst the EU collectively and the UK individually have been regarded as climate leaders in recent years, there are suggestions this momentum may be slowing.
The UK is downgraded in the index on the basis that it is still living off past achievements, whereas the action needed to ensure future emissions reductions – such as a long term policy framework for renewables – has not yet been secured.
But what of the UK’s political leverage within the international climate talks? The UK has been very present in Marrakech. Nick Hurd, minister of state for climate change, represented Britain, and there was no indication in his speeches that Brexit would dampen the UK’s ambition to shape climate politics. Indeed, the UK and Australia jointly presented the roadmap for climate finance on behalf of developed countries. But the test for British climate diplomacy must surely start with the inauguration of President Trump. Can the special relationship survive this change, based on a mutual identity between Brexit Britain and the ‘Brexit plus plus plus’ of Trump’s election? If so, then it maybe the UK can try to temper the extremities of the president’s view and that of his potentially climate sceptic appointees.
For the EU, the challenge will be a different. If the US/China alliance created the momentum for the Paris agreement last year, then the next years’ negotiations may need a different climate leader to partner with China in ensuring that the goals of Paris are achieved. The EU is given a moderate report card by the Germanwatch index, amidst fears that it is giving up its climate leadership on the international stage. The world will likely depend upon the EU regaining that position in 2017, something that may be challenging when it is also dealing with elections in France and Germany, and the Brexit negotiations as well.
Determination to succeed is still high in Marrakech, despite the shadows on the horizon. But, by the time of COP23, the prospects for international climate action may look bleaker. We may be on the right side of history, but that history still needs to be written.