A flurry of meetings should help curb greenhouse-gas emissions. But the global agreement is still essential
IN MAY France’s environment ministry moved to an 18th-century mansion close to the National Assembly and Elysée Palace. The relocation—and a pretentious new name, the Ministry for Ecological and Inclusive Transition—hint at Emmanuel Macron’s desire to be seen as a global leader in the fight against climate change.
Since his election to the French presidency seven months ago, green activists have placed their hopes in Mr Macron as a bulwark against his carbon-cuddling American counterpart, Donald Trump. They came to Paris in force for a One Planet Summit on December 12th, at which Mr Macron hosted more than 50 world leaders to celebrate the anniversary of the UN climate compact agreed in the French capital in 2015. Mr Trump, who decided in June to pull America out of that deal, was not on the invitation list.
Mr Macron launched a campaign to attract American green technologists and climate scientists to move to France. Another six countries joined a coalition led by Britain committed to phasing out coal, bringing the total to 26. The market value of companies agreeing to follow recent recommendations on climate-related financial disclosures from a task force set up by the Financial Stability Board, an international watchdog, reached $6.3trn. The World Bank said it would stop funding oil and gas exploration in two years. The European Union pledged €9bn ($11bn) to help poor countries fight climate change. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest charity, said it would match the €270m the EU has promised for research to help poor farmers in Africa and Asia adjust to global warming.
The flurry of announcements, and the pomp, were intended to breathe new life into the Paris deal. America’s planned departure did not strike it a mortal blow, as some greens feared it would. It may even have nudged the last two holdouts, Nicaragua and Syria, to sign up in November. But the pledges made so far are inadequate, and many are conditional on other countries keeping their side of the bargain. Fresh momentum is sorely needed.
The Paris agreement committed signatories to do what is necessary to keep global warming “well below” 2°C compared with pre-industrial times by 2100, and preferably closer to 1.5°C. Most scientists agree that if the increase is more than 2°C, there is a serious risk of catastrophically higher sea levels and more floods, superstorms and wildfires like those that have afflicted places from Kolkata to the Caribbean to California this year. Greenhouse gases released by humanity have already warmed Earth by 1°C or so since the 1870s. Because planet-cooking carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for thousands of years, stabilising emissions will not suffice to hit that target. Emissions must fall, and quickly (even into negative territory: carbon dioxide will need to be scrubbed from the air somehow). Instead, they are expected to edge up by 2% in 2017, after three years of near-stability.
This year’s “Emissions Gap” report from the UN, published in October, shows that the first set of climate pledges submitted by 164 countries corresponds to barely a third of the cut in emissions needed to keep warming below 2°C (see chart). Studies suggest that these “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) would probably result in temperatures 2.9-3.4°C higher than in pre-industrial times—and that only if they are fully implemented, which seems unlikely.
Mr Trump has said that America, the world’s second-largest greenhouse-gas emitter behind China, will not honour the NDCs submitted by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Nor will it pay into the UN’s Green Climate Fund, set up in 2010 with the intention of transferring $100bn a year by 2020 to poor countries. Commitments to date put the figure closer to $70bn. And most poor countries have made their Paris pledges conditional on rich countries helping them pay to adopt cleaner energy and adapt to a changing climate.
Mr Macron’s jamboree is one in a year-long series of climate get-togethers, some of them initiatives by green-minded politicians and some of them part of the Paris deal. In November the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN climate convention, under which the Paris agreement was forged, descended on Bonn for its annual pow-wow. Earlier this month city leaders from America and elsewhere met in Chicago, invited by the Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to discuss how cities can fight climate change. California’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, is planning a similar, larger extravaganza in September in San Francisco. Three months after that it will be time for the next annual COP, which is due to be held in Poland.
All this summitry provides an opportunity for politicians and philanthropists to make further commitments. It also puts pressure on laggards and reminds the public of a problem that is unfolding so slowly that is easy to ignore. But unless political leaders like Messrs Macron, Emanuel and Brown redouble their efforts, the prospect of keeping global warming to under 2°C looks poor.
In order to get as many countries as possible on board, the Paris agreement set an ambitious goal but remained studiously vague about how it was to be reached. By next year the signatories are supposed to have fleshed out precisely how to calculate, review and ratchet up their nationally determined contributions. Reaching consensus on what counts as a reduction in emissions, and who should monitor progress, will be delicate, admits Patricia Espinosa, the head of the UN climate secretariat. In Bonn, striking a tentative agreement on something as basic as deciding what to discuss during the coming year counted as a coup.
It is unfortunate that the rotating presidency of COP means that the task of shepherding through the final document falls to Poland. Unlike the French organisers of the Paris COP two years ago, Poland’s populist Law and Justice government lacks diplomatic nous and credibility on environmental issues. Jan Szyszko, the environment minister, who is to chair the proceedings, has questioned humanity’s role in global warming and shares Mr Trump’s fondness for coal. The host city of Katowice lies in the heart of Polish coal country. Mr Brown’s take, that “Poland is not exactly a hotbed of climate activism,” understates the problem.
Nazhat Khan, the climate envoy from Fiji, which is to pass the presidency of COP to the Poles on the eve of the summit in Katowice, nevertheless believes that agreement can be reached there. The presidency’s role is not central to the COP process, she says. Officials in Bonn said they doubted that the Poles would sabotage the talks, for fear of global opprobrium. But these reassurances are too lukewarm to be truly comforting. Christiana Figueres, Ms Espinosa’s predecessor and now a climate campaigner, says she is nervous.
The longer-term outlook is also worrying. For all Mr Macron’s vim, France has yet to prove it can be as combative as America used to be, complementing the EU’s more conciliatory tactics, says Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, a think-tank in Washington. Nor has China, which has seized the rhetorical high ground vacated by America, matched its fine words with actions.
In his big speech to the five-yearly Communist Party congress in October, the country’s president, Xi Jinping, spoke of China as a “torch-bearer” and “in the driving seat” as far as environmental matters were concerned. That suggests he intends China to become a global leader on the issue. But “the Chinese are still working out what this means,” says Thomas Hale of Oxford University. Although China’s longstanding policy of not meddling in other countries’ business is only selectively adhered to, it probably does not intend to lecture others on the importance of upgrading their national pledges. Even “torch-bearing”, which sounds like China means to set an example with domestic policies such as switching from coal to renewables for generating electricity, may not amount to all that much in practice (see article). This week in Paris Ma Kai, China’s vice-premier, insisted that a long-awaited emissions-trading scheme will be unveiled before January. But the plans have reportedly been scaled back, and now exclude entire industries.
Just as well, then, that America’s retreat seems as half-hearted as China’s charge. For all Mr Trump’s hostility to environmentalism, Ms Khan says she spied “no appreciable difference” between the size and behaviour of previous American delegations and the one Mr Trump sent to Bonn. America has often been more involved in global greenery than political rhetoric would suggest, says John Vogler of Keele University. The country’s departure from the Kyoto protocol, the Paris agreement’s ill-fated predecessor, under George W. Bush did not stop Americans from attending UN climate events. The country sends officials to meetings of the UN convention on biodiversity, which it has never ratified. And it is still formally bound by Mr Obama’s signature on the Paris deal. Indeed, its withdrawal does not take effect until two days after the next presidential election—and if Mr Trump is not re-elected, his successor might decide to stay.
Even if America does leave under the next administration, a parallel presence is likely to continue. Delegates in Bonn were treated to the curious spectacle of a second American delegation, as brash as the official one was low-key. It pitched a gigantic tent outside the UN compound, luring passers-by with free food and hosting talks by notable American greens including Mr Brown, Al Gore and Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican mayor of New York who now heads the financial-disclosure task force. The Fijian prime minister, who presided over the official programme, stopped by. Ms Espinosa said that if the State Department reneged on its duty to report America’s greenhouse-gas emissions to the UN, she would accept an inventory compiled and paid for by “America’s pledge”, a philanthropic effort led by Mr Brown and Mr Bloomberg.
The pair also dined with Mr Macron and touted the importance of climate initiatives by cities, states and businesses. Thanks to such actions, Mr Bloomberg enthuses, America is already halfway towards meeting its Paris pledge—even though that pledge has formally been abandoned. Mr Obama had promised to slash emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. Firms and investors increasingly understand that curbing climate change is in their long-term interests, he says. Polls in many countries show that a majority of citizens agree.
Don’t forget Paris
But for all the importance of subnational green efforts, the UN climate process is still essential. It is the only mechanism available for chivvying stragglers to do more. And if global warming is to be kept within reasonable bounds, action will be needed not just by the most committed, but also from those currently doing little or nothing. The Paris deal’s voluntary, flexible nature means that it is national pledges, backed by legislation, that collectively add up to global climate governance. Mr Macron’s summit can be judged a success if it reminds the world of this fact.