Proceedings in the latest in the United Nations’ ongoing conferences on Climate Change — the November 7–18 COP22 that just concluded in Marrakech, Morocco — were disturbed by the news of the US election result.
A belligerently anti-environmental president is set to take office in the world’s greatest greenhouse polluting nation at the same time a shaky international climate treaty is being pieced together that will need US involvement to be effective.
This news could be a flashback to 15 years ago when President George W Bush took office and withdrew the US from the Kyoto protocol.
Back in 2001, The Guardian noted the US withdrawal from Kyoto was “a blunt rebuff to European hopes of establishing a global programme to slow down the emission of greenhouse gases, amid startling new evidence of rapid climate change”. Scientists' warnings of a potential 5.8°C warming in this century were cited.
Those warnings have grown louder in the intervening 15 years, but time to act has slipped away as emissions have continued rising at record rates.
The new international climate treaty, the Paris Agreement, aims to limit warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C” with action to start from 2020.
As of this year, at least 1°C has already occurred, which is already creating dangerous ecological and social disruption, there is at least another half a degree locked in due to the yet-to-be-felt impact of recent emissions. This would indicate a 1.5°C target is on the verge of impossible, yet most discussion skirts around this fact.
The damage that a US withdrawal could do to the Paris Agreement is significant, according to May Boeve of international climate action group 350.org. “This isn’t a policy disagreement, it’s a moral crisis,” she said.
“The cost of his inaction will be counted in human lives, the disappearance of entire island nations, and the unfathomable economic impacts that will come with climate catastrophe.”
But while 350.org call the Paris Agreement “the bare minimum of what is necessary to preserve a liveable planet”, that is surely damning with faint praise. Critics note gaping flaws in the agreement, such that implementing it may well entrench failure.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said global action on climate is now “unstoppable”. Much has been made of promises by large polluting nations including the US and Germany to go to zero emissions by 2050 (a distant future date, many election cycles away). The actual progress in talks for implementing the Paris Agreement at COP22 was, however, small.
One challenge for international climate action is matching the politicians’ words to action on the ground. This is reflected in the UN Emissions Gap Report, which examines the significant difference between nations’ commitments, and what is actually needed to keep temperatures below a 1.5°C rise.
Friends of the Earth (FoE) International, a network of grassroots groups and NGOs around the world, is a leading critic of the Paris Agreement process. FoE Malaysia’s Meena Raman said: “The current pledges on the table take us to a world of over 3ºC warming, which is incompatible with a safe existence for millions on this planet.
“Rich countries had an obligation to bring stronger pre-2020 ambition to the table because we must stay under 1.5ºC, but this has not happened.”
Raman said that “failing to increase action in the period up to 2020 especially for countries with historical responsibility, will push the temperature goal of 1.5°C out of reach”.
Among the limits of the Paris Agreement process, equity remains a stumbling block. FoE welcomed the launch of the African Renewable Energy Initiative in Marrakech. But Kwami Kpondzo of FoE Africa noted: “However, in this COP we saw very little movement on the crucial issue of finance needed for the people of Africa.
“Dodgy accounting and fishy finance reporting by rich countries means that the millions already experiencing floods and droughts in every corner of Africa will be left to help themselves.”
Dr Richard Dixon of FoE Scotland pointed out: “The UK and Australia have used all kinds of accounting tricks to pretend that their climate finance is approaching the $100bn goal, whereas the truth is that the coffers are still almost empty.”
Perhaps the most fundamental problem of the Paris Agreement is that it relies on hypothetical “negative emissions” technology to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere after 2050.
In an October Science magazine paper, respected European climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters wrote that models used to determine emissions targets “assume perfect knowledge of future technologies and give less weight to future costs ... Negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble.”
In other words, there is no guarantee that negative emissions technology will work, at a scale or cost that is feasible. Yet the lives of the world’s most vulnerable are being gambled on it.
The combination of enormous flaws in the Paris Agreement and the US election result risks repeating the disaster of the Kyoto period. The Kyoto protocol, adopted in 1997, was a manifest failure: greenhouse gas emissions continued to rocket upward during its life.
Its farcical central policy mechanism — emissions trading — crashed and burned repeatedly in the one region that took it up most seriously, the European Union.
Yet having the US outside the treaty, as well as Australia under Prime Minister John Howard, led to much effort and anger being spent on trying to get those recalcitrant nations to sign up, rather than questioning what kind of treaty might actually stop climate change.
The world cannot afford the delaying tactics of fossil fools like the Trump administration, or a Liberal-National Coalition government in Australia, distracting from serious action again.
Ben Schreiber of FoE US said: “The world should respond to Donald Trump’s Presidency by moving forward and strengthening the weak Paris Agreement pledges. Trump’s election must unify the world in treating the US as a climate pariah, not serve as an excuse for inaction.”
Most urgently, the world needs to ensure that unity against the idiocy of the Trump administration does not blind us to the fatal flaws built into the fabric of the Paris Agreement.
Will fiddling with the Paris Agreement fix it? Is that even on the cards? Or is it, more realistically, going to be an exercise in marshalling another defence of token action, too little and too late?
Without sabotaging whatever is worthwhile in the lowest-common-denominator approach of the international treaty process, nations that accept the urgency of the climate crisis should set the bar for action higher.
Australian researchers, for example, have repeatedly demonstrated that Australia could rapidly move to 100% renewable energy by 2030 or earlier. Professor Mark Z Jacobson of Stanford University in the US has pioneered research demonstrating the global potential for renewable energy.
Renewable energy is only one measure needed to limit the damage of climate change, but it is a crucial one. Given the central role of the fossil fuel industry in organising opposition to climate action, any government that wishes to take serious action will need to move rapidly to smash the resistance of the fossil fuel industry. Renewables provide a weapon.
The next question is how to create a government (or alliance of governments) that can and will take this kind of action at a scale that can lead the world. This question, more than evaluating the charade of international climate diplomacy, is what should concern us.