UN Climate Talks Gear Up for December
Air Date: Week of May 18, 2018
The latest UN climate negotiations in Bonn concluded on May 10th, 2018. (Photo: UNFCCC)
The 190 or so nations in the Paris Climate Agreement will come together in December at a summit in Poland aimed at agreeing on rules to implement the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. Negotiators recently met in Bonn to try to iron out any disagreements in advance of the high-level session. Host Steve Curwood and Union of Concerned Scientists Policy Director Alden Meyer spoke about progress in Bonn and the road ahead.
CURWOOD: Here’s another cool fix for a hot planet, the UN climate treaty. In December its 190 or so nations will come together in the coal country of Poland to try to move ahead with ‘rules of the road’ to implement the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. And before December there are a series of meetings intended to iron out any obstacles and disagreements that could derail progress. Two weeks of those sessions just wrapped up in Bonn, Germany, and as usual, Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists was there. Welcome back to the program Alden!
MEYER: Thanks, Steve. Good to be with you again.
CURWOOD: So, the latest round of climate talks wrapped up in Bonn recently. What was the mood?
MEYER: The mood was workman-like. They were trying to reach agreement where they could on particular issues, but they also acknowledged, I think, that they're behind schedule and that's why they've scheduled an extra week of negotiations in Bangkok, Thailand, in early September to try to get through that part of the negotiation process before the annual climate summit in Poland this December.
CURWOOD: So, what's the ultimate goal, really?
MEYER: Well, there's several goals for this year's climate summit. The most prominent is to reach an agreement on what's called the Paris Agreement Work Program, which is a whole range of issues relating to implementation of the historic agreement reached in Paris three years ago. So, things like what kind of information should countries provide on their so-called nationally determined contributions, which is the commitments they're making under Paris. What kind of information should countries provide on how well they're doing on meeting the commitments? And how do you get ready to ratchet up ambition of the commitments the countries have already made as everyone acknowledges is needed to meet the temperature limitation goals in Paris?
CURWOOD: So, what needed to be done at this session, before the big session, and what in fact did get done?
MEYER: Well, they needed to try to work out draft negotiating text on the Paris rulebook. They made progress in some areas such as compliance and these global stock take of ambition that’s scheduled for 2023. But they really came to loggerheads on the issue of what kind of information countries should provide on their nationally determined contributions and should that be differentiated between developed and developing countries. Or should it be differentiated on the basis of the kind of commitments that countries are making? And of course you'll remember that the US historically and other developed countries as well have had a real opposition to the so-called firewall where developed countries have one form of commitment and developing countries have another. That's one of the reasons why the Kyoto Protocol from 1997 kind of broke down, and so when India, China, and some of the other developing countries tried to reintroduce the notion of this firewall, it produced a strong reaction from the developed countries and they really came to gridlock on that.
CURWOOD: So, the big annual meeting will be right in the heart of coal country there in Poland in Katowice, the third time the conference of the parties has come to Poland. How does that affect these negotiations?
MEYER: Well, the real question is can Poland, the presidency of Poland, separate itself from the domestic interests of Poland, because as you know, Poland has been resisting efforts within the European Union to increase ambition. They have been fiercely defending their continued use of coal domestically, but as the president of the conference of the parties, you need to rise above your national position and try to facilitate agreement on behalf of all the countries attending and I think that's the open question people have.
CURWOOD: So, of course, the US has said it wants to get out of the Paris Climate Agreement - which it can't until 2020 - but in the meantime what has that done to the process?
MEYER: Well, no one is ratcheting down their commitments. We haven't seen a single country follow President Trump in saying they want to get out of the Paris Agreement. We haven't seen a single country saying they're not going to try to meet their commitments they made. Of course, the proof will come a couple of years down the road when it comes time for countries to finally put forward their longer term targets. So, the real question is, “Will countries do more?” The good news is, I think, countries are increasingly aware of the growing number of mayors and governors and business leaders and others in the states that are part of the so-called "we are still in" movement which is saying no matter what President Trump does, we're going to do our best to meet the US commitments under Paris. And they're also aware, as you said, that President Trump can't formally withdraw until ironically one day after the next presidential election in November of 2020.
CURWOOD: So, what role did the US play at these most recent climate talks given Mr. Trump's commitment to get out of the process?
MEYER: Well, they were still very active in the technical negotiations; behind the scenes, for example, the United States co-chaired with China the negotiating working group on transparency and reporting requirements. So, they were very active on that front. They obviously could not be helpful in the finance discussions, and there was a fair amount of anger from, particularly developing countries, to some of the positions the US was taking.
CURWOOD: By the way I understood that the US took a little bit of heat at the session in Bonn because President Trump had promised to say what he didn't like about the Agreement, and so far he actually hasn't said anything formally to the Paris Climate Agreement negotiators.
MEYER: Well, that's right you remember last June when he made his Rose Garden speech announcing his intention to withdraw, he said that was subject to whether we could negotiate a better deal, and of course, you're right that in the time since then he has not made clear what such a better deal would look like. And so I think that just showed that he really didn't understand what the Paris Agreement was, how it had been negotiated, how flexible it really was. And he was just expressing disagreement with it primarily because he thought it was too stringent on the United States and because frankly, President Obama was the one that helped drive it through.
CURWOOD: Now, which countries have emerged with the vacuum that the US has left behind?
MEYER: Well, it varies on issues, but I mean, obviously China has been stepping up its engagement. They have a bit of a mixed bag though. They are doing a lot domestically to shut down some of their older coal plants and ramp up investments in renewable energy and efficiency but at the same time they are financing a lot of coal plant expansions across Southeast Asia. The European Union is trying to step up, but of course they have to get agreement among 28 member states which makes it difficult, and there's no kind of dual pillar like there was between the United States and China driving the Paris Agreement through to completion as we saw under President Obama, President Xi back in 2014, 2015. That sort of international leadership has not come together yet, and I think that's one of the real challenges.
CURWOOD: To be blunt, sometimes when you mention these climate negotiations, the response is a big yawn. “Oh, those aren't doing anything, why is this a news story.” What do you say?
MEYER: Well, I can see that point of view, how it's frustrating to people watching the slow pace in these negotiations, but I would say that Paris three years ago was a breakthrough in the sense that you had unprecedented number of countries engaging in this process domestically, bringing stakeholders together - business, labor, others - seeing what they could do. Of course some did a better job of that than others, but you've achieved a kind of universal engagement on this process and now we have to get it right. We have to mobilize climate finance in a transformational way, going beyond just the public finance to really affecting the trillions of dollars that are in play in the private sector. There's still work to do, but I think you can show how in many cases these negotiations have led to real changes on the ground in countries. It's just not far enough and fast enough, I think that's the frustration that's very legitimate.
CURWOOD: Alden Meyer is Director of Strategy and Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Alden, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.
MEYER: It was good to talk to you, Steve.
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