Climate change talks: will the goals be achieved?

In thriller movies and comic books, often there are giants, good or bad, who feed on themselves even while they multiply and replicate, growing bigger and more prominent in the process. The climate negotiations, held annually and growing bigger each year, seem currently to fit into multiplier-mode quite aptly. Whether that multiplication is having the desired objective is debatable.

Three months ago, Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections caused more consternation amongst journalists than climate players attending the 22nd climate negotiations (COP22) at Marrakech, Morocco, with journalists querying what would happen to the climate negotiations if Trump with his vociferous anti-UN and anti-climate views, pulled it off.

And indeed, Trump, who began his first day in office by striking out all references to climate change and renewable energy from the White House website1, has stoked apprehensions further within a month of his presidency by the US House Science Committee promoting an article in the UK’s Daily Mail laying doubts on the integrity of global warming science, an article declared as false by the DC-based World Resources Institute.

But inside those tented rooms in Marrak­ech, as no doubt in previous years, talks had continued in a surreal atmosphere of ivory-towered discussion, oblivious to any undercurrents other than their own, representatives of each country debating every word in every sentence down to its very basic level in an arduously time-consuming process.

Even more surreal is that the majority of country-representatives, as per a senior expert’s comment, has not lived in their countries for 20 years or more, mostly sitting in temperature-controlled closeted rooms in Brussels or Geneva, or other stations for international organisations, caught up in reams of writing and files and documents.

And, in the myriad press releases about climate-related activity, what still stands out is that even if all the talk were to move into actual field activity, global temperatures would still be far short of being reduced by 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels (agreed in Copenhagen in 2009), says the UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2016.

The Paris Agreement, historic because it brought about agreement after years of fractious fighting between all 197 parties to the UN’s climate convention, agrees to efforts, through promised but voluntary emissions-reductions by nations, to limit temperatures to 1.5 degrees C below pre-industrial levels, which is even more ambitious than the UNEP report’s summation.

The 2016 report says we are “actually on track for global warming up to 3.5 degrees Celsius”, in spite of the Paris Agreement and the Kigali Amendment in 2016 where curbs on emissions of hydrofluorocarbons would take another 0.5 degrees off the table. Another report in 2016, this time from the London School of Economics study found six industrialised nations, United States, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Argentina are not even following their emissions reduction commitments as per the Paris Agreement.

The study, done by LSE’s Grantham Institute and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy further says that these six G20 countries “lack overall framework legislation or regulation on climate change” and are either “behind meeting their 2020 targets or have not set any”.

In any case, the Paris Agreement’s clauses pay attention to post 2020 actions which dilutes immediate attention to pre-2020 work, the latter pushed by India and other developing nations. As Bolivia’s Deputy Minister for Development Planning Pacheco said at Marrakech, there is no real action in the Paris Agreement to enhance urgent pre-2020 action. “There is a mismatch between facts and aims”, Pacheco believes.

He also fears that commitments from developed countries to developing ones will remain an issue of discussion rather than action, because developed nations are trying to transfer responsibility from the public sector to the private sector.

Pacheco has a point. The last talks at Marrakech saw a record number of corporate and private sector companies’ involvement, with a total of 144 companies, 39 public and 17 financial institutions who exhibited their existence at a special stall set up for the purpose. Private sector was represented at most high-level meetings, with more than 200 CEOs and MDs participating at the event. “So climate change will become a kind of business”, says Pacheco.

Climate financing

Whatever the case, long-term climate finance remains a wrangling issue between developing and industrialised nations. Ahead of the talks, the UK and Australia, on behalf of developed nations, launched a report that claimed $62 billion was mobilised in 2014 towards climate financing.

The report, roadmap to the $100 billion, remains unacknowledged by the UNFCCC but was used by developed countries as proof of keeping their commitments to give $100 billion annually till 2020 to finance climate adaptation and mitigation needs of developing countries, agreed to at the 2010 climate talks.

But the UNFCCC’s 2016 biennial report on climate finance, produced by its standing committee on finance, shows that public financing from developed to developing countries was $25.4 billion in 2013 and $26.6 billion in 2014, way short of what was being claimed by developed nations at the talks.

Indeed, the numerous requests for help from the UN’s Climate Technology Centre and Network has “made the CTCN in many ways the victim of its own success, mobilising expertise at a rate that is outpacing its receipt of funding”, says its chairman Spencer Linus Thomas.

The uncertainty, just two months into affirmations at Marrakech that each country will continue its own climate actions, is now compounded by a realistic apprehension that the climate negotiations agreement will stall with a new and reluctant US administration, in spite of the assurance by various US officials at the talks speaking of a momentum that was now difficult to derail. As the then US energy secretary Ernest Moniz said, ‘you can’t keep waves off the beach.’

But with Trump’s current stance, those waves seem at low tide right now, giving opportunities to developing and smaller nations to deem it unfair to keep their commitments.

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