This week, delegates from almost 200 countries are gathering in Marrakech for the next round of UN climate talks. There are many reasons for climate diplomats to be cheerful. Last year’s Paris Climate Agreement, signed by all those countries, has come into legal force over a year earlier than planned. All the major emitters, including the US, China, India, and the EU, have now completed domestic ratification of the treaty. The global economy seems firmly set on a trajectory towards net zero emissions by the end of this century.
But despite these successes, there are several major challenges facing attendees in Marrakesh: how to increase individual emission pledges, how to raise sufficient climate finance, and how to respond to President-elect Trump.
Ratcheting up the ambition
Signatories to the Paris Agreement pledged to limit average global temperature rises to well below two degrees and to aim for a rise of just 1.5 degrees. Yet the Intended Nationally Defined Contributions (INDCs), voluntary pledges by individual countries of how much they would cut their emissions, are not sufficient to achieve these high-level goals.
Ahead of the summit in Marrakesh, the United Nation’s Environment Programme released a report on the ‘emission gap’, which is the deficit between the INDCs and the long-term goals. They find that current pledges will lead to an average warming of around 3.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. They also calculate that, under current INDCs, both the 1.5 and 2 degrees ‘carbon budget’, the total amount of carbon that can be emitted before temperatures rise above a certain level, would be easily exceeded by 2030.
In the text of the agreement, there is a resolution to begin a dialogue in 2018 on progress towards the 1.5 and 2 degree targets. Another key feature of the Paris deal is that signatories must reassess and increase their individual contributions every five years to help ensure the high-level goals are met. The first occasion this will happen is in 2020. So there are mechanisms for scaling up pledges, but urgent progress is required.
Securing climate finance
The support of developing countries for the Paris Agreement was contingent on securing sufficient funding to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change. A total of $100 billion per annum by 2020 must be raised by developed countries. The UK Government this week released a statement showing that funding currently stands at $62 billion per annum, up from $53 billion in 2013. The UK’s own contribution is set to rise to £1.76 billion by 2020.
Donald Trump has said he will cancel the United States’ payments to this fund. President Obama had pledged to give a total of $3 billion by 2020. Assuming Trump follows through with this election pledge, replacement finance will now be required, as well as the outstanding amount.
Managing President-elect Donald Trump
During his election campaign, Donald Trump pledged to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. But as the ratification process was so swift, he is unable to cancel the treaty altogether. In fact, reports have suggested the possibility of Trump as President helped instil the urgency to bring the treaty into force. In theory, the US would have to wait four years before it could leave, but in reality, there is little to stop him disregarding the emission reduction pledges made by President Obama. In addition, Trump has promised to “end the war on coal”, and review the current regulations helping to drive coal off the system.
Nevertheless, strong economic forces, as much as political will, are now helping to drive decarbonisation. The rapidly-falling costs of low-carbon technologies have made renewables as cheap as, if not cheaper than, traditional fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that costs of onshore wind have fallen by 30% between 2010 and 2015, and those of solar by two-thirds. Independent analysis for the UK Government this week show that onshore wind and solar will both outcompete gas on price by 2025. This may help keep the US, and indeed the rest of the world, on a low-carbon trajectory in the absence of presidential leadership.
Even before the election of Donald Trump, the challenges of matching action with ambition and raising sufficient climate finance were significant. When President Obama hands over to President Trump, an important galvanising force for international climate action will be lost. But other major climate leaders are now emerging. China actually castigated candidate Trump in November 2016 for his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
Countries like India and China are clear that they are pursuing their own self-interest by championing climate action. Decarbonising helps India to cut its air pollution, with pollution in parts of New Delhi currently five times the level considered safe by the US’s Environment Protection Agency. Similarly, China sees a major economic opportunity both from increased low-carbon infrastructure spending and from becoming a leading exporter of low-carbon technologies.
Post-Paris there is both a political framework for scaling up ambition and an economic imperative to be at the forefront of the low-carbon transition. Despite Trump, the delegates in Marrakech can be optimistic.
Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue