If COP 21 in Paris was about outlining a plan to fight climate change, this year’s COP 22 in Marrakesh needed to see those promises turning into real action. Yet in the midst of the negotiations, came the announcement of Trump’s victory in the US. In this context of renewed uncertainty, the steps taken by other global forces such as the EU to act on their commitments are more crucial than ever… An interview with Lucile Schmid and Bas Eickhout.
Green European Journal: COP 22, the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, recently concluded in Marrakech, Morocco. One year after COP 21 in Paris, which was considered by the majority of observers as a great diplomatic success, what should be retained from this COP 22? Is the climate saved?
Bas Eickhout: The big take away from the COP22 in my opinion is that the world is moving on. As Ban Ki Moon put it nicely: “What once was unthinkable is now unstoppable”. Let’s not forget how Marrakesh opened with the historical news of Paris Agreement entering into force in record time after its adoption. Let’s also not forget how united the world reacted after Trump was elected. Not one government backed away from its responsibilities. On the contrary, countries were ratifying the Paris Agreement instead. Australia for example was one of them, and that isn’t one of the most progressive countries, to put it mildly.
Lucile Schmid: This COP22 meeting was clearly disturbed by the election of Donald Trump. It obviously slowed down the process and prevented this meeting from advancing to a discussion on climate discipline and its conditions, in terms of regulation and governance. Reaffirming general principles was still necessary, however. The most positive element in Marrakesh in this context was the reaffirmation by the participants that the Paris agreement was the reference to be respected on fighting climate change and that it concerned all the parties including the United States. The fact that China, after having ratified the Paris agreement before Europe, was committed to play an active role on the climate front seemed remarkable to me. It could influence the American position in the future.
Asking if the climate has been saved is a provocative question… We all know that it is not a diplomatic agreement alone, nor a meeting, which can achieve that. But both an agreement and a successful meeting can show a direction, and define common principles. And the Paris agreement is an essential part of the landscape we need to save the climate, a landscape in which states, people, the private sector, NGOs, everyone plays a different role. But, of course, there are lots of other necessary pieces apart from a treaty in this puzzle. Some of the main ones are the ability of national states to link the general principles of the Paris agreement to national policies and disciplines, as well as articulating the state’s plan at the level of local governments, private firms, and civil societies, and defining more precisely the different roles and responsibilities.
In addition, for Northern countries, there’s the issue of putting into practice the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and then putting on the table the financial means for Southern countries to promote a sustainable model of development. Without practical moves in this direction, the contradiction between climate action and the right to development will remain. I would add that in the coming months the capacity for EU Member States to determine the repartition of efforts between themselves will be a strong indicator of their political will to keep a European leadership on these questions.
Does the fact that this conference was held in Marrakech, on the African continent, make it possible to highlight the specificity of the problems facing African countries, and more generally of the Southern countries more affected by climate change?
BE: I do think so. The Greens definitely tried to do their share. We held for example a conference on the importance of decreasing the risk on capital for renewables in Africa. There is lots of sun in Africa, but it is Germany where the solar panels are being placed. That’s because capital is cheaper in Germany. The Greens therefore want to use a small share of the EU budget to lower the costs of borrowing money for renewable projects in Africa by lowering the risks. However, the biggest problem for Africa will be to deal with the unavoidable consequences of climate change. They need money for “adaptation”. I therefore keep on hammering that we have to get reliable sources for climate finance. For example, a part of the revenues from our European Emission Trading System (EU ETS).
LS: It should have been so. But it was not obvious enough. For example, on the question of agriculture, no proper agreement could be found between the North and the South. Some elements were positive: you could sense that Moroccan society has developed several kinds of forms of mobilisation, and the question of climate justice was often raised by African NGOs. But for me as President of the Fondation de l’Ecologie Politique, having organised several debates with African figures before and during COP21, it was obvious that there was a real difficulty in this regard. Most personalities or NGOs promoting action on climate change are not supported by the national governments in Africa. The fight for democracy is linked to the fight against climate change, or against fossil fuel lobbies or, against corruption. Then the question is to determine which structures and people can be trusted to be the main actors of this green transition in Africa. And obviously on this question, COP 22 did not provide precise answers.
How was Donald Trump’s victory in the United States received during the conference, placing a climate change sceptic in the White House in the near future? Can the COP’s climate diplomacy survive a Trump Presidency?
LS: Donald Trump’s victory was a kind of justification for extreme cautiousness and the status quo. Even if Trump is a threat, I don’t think it should be a new argument to stay in a position based on values without entering the second step, the step of taking action, of defining roles and responsibilities between countries, states, and the private sector, banks and international institutions. It is no longer the time for words. It is time for creative thought and action. It is time for vision. Donald Trump is Donald Trump. But we as part of a worldwide society of people living under the threat of climate change should stop hesitating and wasting time. The question of deadlines, the proper articulation of decisions and agendas should be dealt with.
BE: The momentum away from fossil fuels to renewable energy is unstoppable. We have reached a point where moving away from renewable energy would only damage the long-term prospects for the economy and for jobs. You noticed at COP22 that basically everyone over there realises that. It explains why we saw disappointment but no backtracking. Climate action makes economic sense – that is why I don’t doubt that the climate agreement will survive Trump. For the same reason, I think that we should wait and see what Trump comes up with when it comes to climate. Trump has said a lot of things during his campaign. But just he already gave an interview in which he said he would keep an “open mind” when it comes to the Paris Agreement. That is quite a difference compared to previous statements. No wonder. Investing in coal fired power plants is a dead end. But of course, some countries will look critically at what the US are going to do back home (what will happen with the Environmental Protection Agency, Keystone pipeline, Obama´s Clean Coal Plan and so on). So the pressure will be back on Europe to step in this void that the US are leaving behind. And many countries count on the EU to deliver more; that will be our European challenge.
And now, what’s the next concrete step in the climate agenda? Beyond these great climate mobilisations, what can we do individually to try to save our climate?
BE: Let me focus on the EU here. As I said, it is critical that the EU ramps up its ambition level. Our current climate policies are not nearly ambitious enough to allow us to do our fair share in keeping global warming under 2 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees. We need a much higher greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030. We have to increase the pace of energy savings and renewables penetration, instead of slowing down, in the forthcoming energy legislation. The EU “winter package” on energy is crucial in this regard. The first signs are very disappointing though. I am currently also working on the revision of the European Emission Trading System (EU ETS) and the Effort Sharing Regulation (national greenhouse gas reduction targets for all the economic sectors not covered by ETS). While negotiating, you see that politicians who without any hesitation say that we have to fulfil our commitments under the Paris Agreement, are backing away when ‘painful’ decisions have to be made to actually achieve these commitments. That is extremely disappointing and damaging. That is where we need the pressure of the public. Public pressure is the way to force politicians to make the right choices. And to that every individual can contribute. I found it therefore amazing to see that the number of people actively supporting environmental NGOs increased dramatically in the US after the elections. That’s what we need in the EU as well; as many people as possible speaking out on the importance of saving the climate.
LS: I would say that the next step is to put our national policies in line with the Paris agreement. I’m thinking particularly of the development of renewable energies or educating ourselves to change our use of energy. I also think a more global change in our economic model is needed, including saying goodbye to inadequate projects like the airport at Notre Dame des Landes, Nantes, in France or other very costly infrastructure projects like the Lyon-Turin tunnel. And I think that France, for example, should avoid its usual temptation to present climate issues from a narrow-minded nationalistic point of view. If we want COP21 to be more than a flash in the pan we should give it a European perspective. As an individual I would say that I will try to ensure climate issues become more prominent in public debates. The fact that these issues are not treated constantly but intermittently does not help to put them on the political agenda.