Vol. XL No. 49 December 04, 2016

COP22 at Marrakech: New Threats and Old Challenges - I

T Jayaraman

DESPITE the brave face put up by the Moroccan hosts and the participating delegations from almost 190 countries, the  22nd edition of the world's annual climate summit at Marrakech, was held with a gun pointed at their heads by the president-elect of the United States, Donald Trump. While the finger on the trigger may have been that of the newest hero of global reaction, taking world climate action hostage had the support of the most backward sections of the big capital cheered on by a groundswell of support from some of the most backward sections of the US polity. During the two weeks of negotiations, the question hung in the air, whether the Paris Agreement and the subsequent discussions on its implementation would be set at nought by the United States once Trump took office.

While many political figures and officials from developed nations asserted that negotiations would remain on track, there was no Fidel Castro or a Hugo Chavez as in the days of the Copenhagen climate summit of 2009, with the courage to name and shame the global superpower and its allies. In the event, the first formal acknowledgement of the Trump threat, kept out till then from the negotiating halls, came at the closing plenary of the summit. Both the foreign minister of Morocco, president of COP22, and the prime minister of Fiji  (Fiji is the host country of COP23 to be held at Bonn, Germany) appealed, to Trump directly. They urged him on the grounds of pragmatism and his commitment to humanity to take climate change seriously with Fiji's prime minister going  so far as to plead, recalling the Second World War : “You  came to  save us then, and it is time for you to save us now.”

It remains to be seen whether Trump will heed such appeals or will follow through entirely on all the threats to climate action that he has held out during his campaign including reneging on the Paris Agreement and increased investment in and further deregulation of fossil fuels extraction. It is clear that big capital is divided on the question of climate change as is clear from the open letter to Trump, post-election, from the heads of 50 major corporations urging him to take climate change seriously. But the initial moves by the Trump transition team for the takeover of the presidency do not portend well for the future, including the appointment of a known climate denier to oversee the transition in the field of environment.

But for the US election results playing spoilsport, COP22 would have certainly seen a more vociferous and self-congratulatory celebration of the Paris Agreement, with perhaps even a last-minute appearance by Obama to celebrate what would have been billed as one of the outstanding achievements of his presidency.  Over the last year, a majority of the countries party to the UNFCCC, 95 to be precise, ratified the Paris Agreement prior to Marrakech, including all developed countries (Britain being one of the last) and most “emerging economies”, among whom China had led the way.

COP22 had been billed in advance as the “COP of action”.  Unfortunately, as the long record of previous climate summits have shown such high-sounding sentiments do not carry much weight when it comes to the real negotiations. If the developing countries had expected a new atmosphere of goodwill and cooperation at Marrakech in the implementation of the Paris Agreement they were soon to be disabused of it.  While politically a lame-duck, with no guarantee that their words or agreements would be honoured by the incoming president, the United States delegation and its developed country allies remained insistent on setting the agenda for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is especially galling, since almost uniquely among all countries, in the case of the US, agreements entered into by a president can be undone by the houses of congress and/or by the next president himself. Now, with a Republican dominated senate and house of representatives and a Republican president, all aligned against the Paris Agreement, it is clear that even if the agreement itself is not repudiated, then its letter and spirit are most likely to be violated in its implementation. Small wonder then that Noam Chomsky pointed out after the Trump victory that “the Republican party is now the most dangerous political organisation in the history of the planet.”

The similarity of this evolution with the story of what happened with the Kyoto Protocol is striking. In negotiating the Kyoto Protocol the United States drove a hard bargain, first lowering the level of emissions reduction that was envisaged and then insisting, virtually single-handedly, on providing a pre-eminent role for market based mechanisms of emissions reduction, through carbon trading and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Eventually while the Clinton administration signed the Protocol, the Bush administration and congress refused to ratify it.  It is a strong possibility that the Paris Agreement may meet the same fate as the Kyoto Protocol (or the earlier UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) with the US not implementing or withdrawing from it, while the rest of the signatories are bound to adhere to the agreement.

Unfortunately, a climate agreement without the United States may not be very useful let alone politically feasible. Nor is the mere fact of claiming the moral high ground vis-a-vis the United States of much value. The US is still the world's second highest emitter in absolute terms and  in per capita emissions is way and above the highest in the world among major nations (a very few of the OPEC countries in West Asia and elsewhere may be higher but they are quite small emitters in absolute terms). As it is, the Paris Agreement commitments to emissions reduction by developed nations are so insufficient that they will set the world, with high probability, towards a temperature increase of more than 2.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Worse still, of the greenhouse gas emissions that will be emitted in the near future, ie, upto 2030, the bulk will be by the developed nations. In effect the majority of the nations of the developing world will have very little carbon space available for their essential developmental needs, thus constraining their development along pathways with much higher energy costs. If the US sets itself on a path, not of emissions reduction but possible increase in emissions, then this dramatically worsens the situation.

Significantly, the real strategy of the Obama administration in pushing for the Paris Agreement became evident in the speech of the US secretary of state John Kerry to COP22 in the ministerial segment during the second week of the conference. In a speech that was eloquent on the dangers of global warming, Kerry however made clear his confidence that action to combat climate change would be forthcoming because of the way markets were moving and the way the private sector was reacting to the opportunities presented by renewable energy. To applause from the delegates he insisted: “I can tell you with confidence that the United States is right now, today, on our way to meeting all of the international targets that we’ve set, and because of the market decisions that are being made, I do not believe that that can or will be reversed.” So it was the markets that were to be the bulwark that would protect the world from anything that Trump might seek to do!

Making clear his view of the significance of the Paris Agreement, Kerry a little later on emphasised: “None of us pretended that in Paris, the agreement itself was going to achieve two degrees. What we knew is we were sending that critical message to the marketplace, and businesses have responded, as I just described. Most business people have come to understand: investing in clean energy simply makes good economic sense. You can make money. You can do good and do well at the same time.”  Amazingly, this statement by Kerry has drawn little attention from the rest of the world. The US knows well, as many around the world have long suspected (including this writer and his colleagues working in climate change and climate policy) that the Paris Agreement is inadequate. But in the US world-view, persuading capitalists the world over that they could keep making money even while fighting climate change is to be the route to the world's salvation. In case one did not understand, Kerry again reiterated in his speech that it was not governments that were the key to the energy transition away from fossil fuels averting a climate catastrophe (a catastrophe whose origins and consequences he outlined at some length).  But what should governments do? Again Kerry: “One of the strongest signals that government can send, one of the most powerful ways to reduce emissions at the lowest possible course – cost – is to move toward carbon pricing that puts basic, free-market economics to work in addressing this challenge.”

The parallels with the role of Al Gore, Clinton's vice-president, one of the key architects of the final form of the Kyoto Protocol in 1996 and ten years later the star of the climate change film, “An Inconvenient Truth” are striking. Unfortunately it is two decades since the Kyoto Protocol and the world, that has moved significantly closer to climate catastrophe, cannot rely on yet another experiment like the Kyoto Protocol.  However in the Paris Agreement the United States, with the active collaboration of other developed countries, bolstered by the illusions of a section of the smaller,  poorer and more vulnerable nations, was able to impose a strategy for climate action that was not meant to succeed in itself but only promote global climate action through private corporations and market forces.

One cannot entertain any illusions regarding the strategic view that Kerry pushed at Marrakech. For one thing, many developed countries are unlikely to meet the commitments made in Paris, a list that includes the United States and even the poster-boy of developed country climate action, Germany. The carbon markets under the Kyoto Protocol have remained in a highly depressed state for the last several years with the carbon price remaining well below any worthwhile level.  In a large number of countries insistence on carbon markets would result in highly inequitable outcomes in energy and other sectors. And yet few, if any, among Third World countries had the stomach to take on the developed countries in any significant way. This is the context in which we must understand what happened at Marrakech as well as the manner in which negotiations proceeded, the subject to which we will turn in the second part of this essay.