Rogue US can’t derail Bonn agenda as leaders keep the faith: column for Recharge magazine

The US was a marginal presence at a COP23 summit that kept the wind in the sails of global climate action, writes Jeremy Leggett in Recharge Magazine.

Busy executives in companies producing and using renewable energy may be wondering what to make of the increasingly detailed negotiations at the latest annual climate summit, held in Bonn over the last fortnight.

The bottom line is that an international collaboration of every national government on the planet – save one rogue administration in the shape of the US – remains committed to, and on course for, decarbonisation of the global economy. There has never been a precedent for a megatrend like this in the history of nations. And it blows a strong wind into the sails of the renewables industries.

The Paris Agreement on climate changeis a treaty involving two types of pledge. One involves nationally-determined commitments (NDCs) progressively to cut greenhouse gas emissions with the collective aim of keeping global warming below 2 degrees C at most, with strong collective efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees. These are not legally binding.

The other involves a “ratchet” mechanism progressively to tighten those commitments in the years ahead. This is where the legally-binding commitments lie. The ratchet is much needed, because NDCs tabled in Paris fall well short of limiting warming to 2 degrees. Doing that means cutting carbon emissions to net zero.

The timetable for the ratchet involves agreeing a rulebook by the end of 2018, countries then revising their NDCs within 2019, and tabling new, lower, pledges in the first half of 2020. That would enable a global stock-take at the climate summit at the end of that year, hopefully with the 1.5-degree target then clear in the collective gunsight. For this to happen, a framework for the rulebook had to be agreed in Bonn, and it was.
Beyond this, the summit endorsed a process throughout 2018 that offers a reality check on the adequacy of climate action and explores options for faster action. Many nations deemed this imperative, given the dire catalogue of mega-storms, droughts, wildfires and floods in 2017.

Negotiators refer to the process as the “Talanoa dialogue”, after a democractic tradition in Fiji, the country holding the summit presidency in Bonn. (They couldn’t hold it in Fiji as planned because of the horrible impact of a mega-storm there in 2016). This dialogue holds open the prospect of nations acting earlier than 2020, consistent with the generally perceived acceleration of the climate-change threat.

In speaking of their commitments and responsibilities at the Bonn summit, key national leaders kept faith with what many governments now routinely refer to as an “irreversible” process. President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany, notably, called for greater action. Climate change will determine humanity’s destiny, the German leader said. Twenty-seven nations agreed to accelerate the international phase-out of coal, in an initiative they called “Powering Past Coal”.

The Trump administration made feeble attempts to provide a counter view. At a side event, members of their delegation endeavoured to set out a case for continuing and expanding use of coal and other fossil fuels. Most of the audience got up and walked out, many of them singing a protest song. Meanwhile, interestingly, US negotiators did not play the obstructive role in the negotiations that some feared.

Non-national actors were also very much in evidence at the summit. Governor of California Jerry Brown and former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg led a coalition of American states, cities, and corporations that have pledged to cut America’s emissions whatever the Trump administration does. This ‘We Are Still In’ initiative spans more than half the US economy and population. Bloomberg compared the US delegation’s push for coal to lobbyists advocating tobacco at a cancer conference.

Although the substance of the climate negotiations has meaning, and that is why it is important for them to keep in some kind of step with the rhetoric, there is also a sense in which the negotiations are about the sending of signals into markets that a global energy transition is under way, and that for investors and others to keep faith with the fossil-fuel incumbency is increasingly risky.
Markets have increasingly been listening to this, since Paris. Most days we see evidence of this process unfolding, though there is still a long way to go in a world investing more than $700bn a year in fossil fuels while pouring a further $400bn-plus into them as direct subsidies, more than four times the subsidies for renewables.

During the summit, the most spectacular example of listening came on the penultimate day. The Norwegian Central Bank, manager of the $1 trillion national (oil-funded) pension fund, told its government that it should divest the fund from oil and gas completely. In the wake of Paris, the fund had long since divested from coal and tar sands.

The writing grew clearer on the wall in Bonn.