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Thomas Schueneman headshot

COP22: The Spirit of Paris and the Elephant in the Room


Just as the COP22 climate talks opened in Marrakesh, Morocco, fresh on the heels of a historic year of progress and growing momentum, the surprising result of the interminable U.S. election sucked the air out of the room.

Years of progress between China and the U.S. face the test of a new president who once claimed climate change was a Chinese hoax, then said he was only joking. It is unclear what happens next for the United States.

This is, so to speak, the elephant in the room.

But the rest of the world was at COP22. Even as the United States looks suddenly to an uncertain change of course, the global community sought to reassure its citizens of its resolve.

In the spirit of Paris: Reaffirming commitment

The fear that countries would run for cover in the wake of a Donald Trump victory has not, as yet, come to fruition. As of this writing, 113 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement -- which came into force on Nov. 4, less than one year since its adoption at COP21.

"There is no ignoring that the election of Donald Trump sent reverberations through the negotiation halls," Paula Caballero of the World Resources Institute said in a press statement. "But delegates carried on with a strong spirit of determination. No country stepped back from its commitment to climate action."

In fact, several countries announced ratification in the days just after the U.S. election, including Japan, Italy, Australia, Pakistan and Botswana. In all, 11 countries ratified the agreement during COP22.

In a press release, the Climate Action Network -- a global NGO representing civil society -- welcomed how "governments strongly reaffirmed their resolve to work together on implementing the Paris Agreement, even amidst uncertain political moments."

It seems as if the momentum and "political solidarity" set in motion over decades of hard work that came to fruition in Paris last year remains intact.

Getting down in the weeds: Making it work

If getting past the election was the first hurdle of COP22, many others persisted as the more substantive issues of implementation, ambition and finance took center stage. With earlier-than-expected ratification, this year's COP was also the first conference of parties under the Paris Agreement: CMA1.

Unlike COP21, with its clearly defined aspirational goal of reaching a global agreement, the focus in Marrakesh was on drier, more technical issues. Coming to terms with the devil in the details doesn't play as well to the public. But, perhaps aided by the reaction to Trump's election, key steps were reached by the end of the conference to "advance implementation of the global pact," said WRI's Paula Caballero.

A quick roundup of key points include:

  • 2018 deadline for the rulebook: CMA2 is set for 2018 (COP24) to allow the Ad hoc Working Group Under the Paris Agreement (APA) sufficient time to finish their preliminary work setting ground rules for implementation.

  • Vulnerable states: The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a partnership of 43 developing countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts, released its CVF Vision -- committing participating nations to adopt 100 percent renewable energy generation "as soon as possible." How soon this happens depends on financing the infrastructure of a new energy economy.

  • Adaptation fund and climate finance: Delegates from developed nations relented to their peers, ensuring that the Adaptation Fund, started under the Kyoto Protocol, will continue under the umbrella of the Paris Agreement. Seeking to reassure emerging economies that the promise to deliver $100 billion to support low-carbon development still stands, developed nations released the Roadmap to $100 Billion. While welcomed at COP22, the plan was also met with skepticism. Dialogue on finance issue remains difficult, but open.

  • Decarbonization strategy: Germany, Canada, Mexico and the United States released long-term plans for decarbonization by 2050, called the 2050 Platform.

  • New partnerships: The NDC Partnership and the Capacity-Building Initiative for Transparency launched to help developing countries achieve their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Saving face

The failure of COP15 in Copenhagen cast its shadow in the opening days of Paris. The possibility of the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is a long shadow stretching back to 2001 when George W. Bush scuttled U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol, one of the first decisions of his new presidency.

Signed by the U.S. in 1997 at COP3 in Kyoto, many terms of the Kyoto Protocol were dictated by U.S. negotiators, only to be abandoned years later by a new administration.

The irony of Trump's unthoughtful comments, whether he was joking or not, is that it is China who benefits most from Trump's threat to "tear up the Paris Agreement." Beyond the damaged credibility, Trump will cede to China the global leadership role for the new energy economy.

Hope remains that, when presented with the consequences of following through on campaign rhetoric, Trump will seek what he considers the best option: saving face. He may come to realize that "making America great again" involves positive participation in global affairs.

Whatever Trump does in the coming months and years is open to speculation. It is unlikely his administration will be friendly to anything that smacks of environmental advocacy. In the U.S. leadership will come from states, cities and private industry. It will be a struggle.

Lessons of history: Lack of political will is no longer an excuse

Well-known for his science fiction writing, author Stanislaw Lem was also one of the most prescient futurists ever to record their vision. For Lem, history was the key to the future. "You can't unlearn what is already learned," writes New Scientist magazine of Lem's philosophy of the future.

As for global cooperation on climate change, lack of political will is no longer an excuse. We cannot unlearn what we learned in Paris or what we've learned about climate change in the fossil energy age. Paris taught us that we indeed have the political will to come together as a global community. Decades of science and observation teaches the consequences of failing to act, and these are already well underway.

The historic adoption and ratification of the Paris Agreement offers the world a reason for cautious optimism. Despite the fear and anxiety of a Trump administration, COP22 pushed ahead with a vision for the future, built on the lessons of history.

We can fail to act on what we know. Or we can push ahead, even in the face of hostile forces. Imperfect as it is, the process at COP22 remains intact.

For now.

Image credit: James Nerhebii, courtesy Flickr; UNFCCC

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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