SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 215 February 2018

Bad Bonn climate deal

The latest round of the UN sponsored talks on climate change took place in Bonn at the end of last year. The meeting was meant to prepare the ground for the start of the Paris agreement which was negotiated in 2015 and is due to come into operation in 2020. In particular, the sponsors of the Bonn meeting wanted to show that the decision of the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris agreement would not hold it back.

The agreement has at its core pledges (called NDCs) by all the participants of how much they intend to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of global warming. There are two main drawbacks with Paris. Firstly, it is completely voluntary. Secondly, even if all the original pledges are fully implemented, including the one made by Barack Obama on behalf of the USA, temperatures are likely to rise by a catastrophic 3C above pre-industrial levels.

The stated aim of the Paris agreement was to keep temperature rises well below 2C, so there is a huge gap between this aspiration and the pledges that have been made, even before Donald Trump said he was pulling the world’s second-biggest polluter out. The gap could get even bigger because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main scientific body studying global warming, is currently reviewing the target of keeping temperature rises to under 2C in order to avoid runaway warming. This review is the result of the mounting evidence that the current rise in temperature of just 1C is already leading to extreme weather events. As a result, it is possible that the 2C target will be cut to 1.5C when the IPCC reports in September.

Recognising the gap between what has been promised and what is needed, there is a provision for a ratchet mechanism built into the agreement. This means that the NDCs will be reviewed in 2020 and then increased so they are closer to achieving the target. A key issue in Bonn was the progress made towards setting new NDCs through that ratchet approach.

Before the meeting started there was controversy about the agenda. ‘Developing’ countries tried and failed to get two issues put on the agenda to give a sign of the good faith of the major industrialised capitalist countries in addressing the problem of global warming and acknowledging their historical responsibility for driving climate change. The first was to debate progress on the ‘Doha amendment’. This refers to the action required by the signatories of the Kyoto treaty to continue action on climate in the time between the end of Kyoto in 2012 and the start of the Paris agreement in 2020.

Although the time to bring in transition arrangements after Kyoto had nearly run out, the Doha amendment had still not obtained a sufficient number of signatories to come into force. The UK and Germany signed up during the Bonn meeting but, even if sufficient other countries follow suit to ratify the agreement, its impact will be negligible in the time remaining before 2020.

The second issue the ‘developing’ countries wanted to get on the agenda was the $100 billion in climate finance promised at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 to be given to poor countries by 2020 to cope with the effects of global warming. To date only a very small fraction of this amount – about $10 billion – has been forthcoming, or nearer to $20 billion if World Bank funding is included.

Another issue campaigners were pressing was the ‘loss and damage’ provision in the Paris agreement that addresses the cost of climate change consequences. These include, for example, compensating the inhabitants of the Maldives if or when this chain of coral islands in the Indian Ocean disappears under the waves. Despite years of tortuous earlier discussions, yet again no source of finance was agreed in Bonn.

There was no item on the agenda directly addressing a ratchet mechanism, but there were talks about talks and preliminary discussions, under the heading ‘enhanced ambition’. Called the Talanoa dialogue, the aim was to promote an ‘inclusive, participatory and transparent’ process in the talks. However, even agreeing to such a bland and general proposition led to disagreement.

The original proposal to ‘endorse’ the Talanoa approach was watered down after lengthy wrangling to one of ‘welcome with appreciation’. Also, to smooth the path to the ratchet mechanism, there was an item on how to formulate NDCs, in particular, to help to update them. The document that summarised this ran to nearly 180 pages, in which dozens of countries put forward contradictory positions.

A footnote to the Bonn meeting was the Powering Past Coal Alliance. This was put together by British prime minister Theresa May and launched in Bonn by the junior climate change minister Claire Perry, after the Tories abolished the climate change cabinet post. This was an opportunist attempt to grab the headlines. More accurately, it should have been called the ‘powering past coal towards fracking alliance’, since its two main sponsors were the UK and Canadian governments which have aspirations to be big players in the global fracking industry. (Fracking emits less greenhouse gases than coal but it will still be impossible to meet targets to avoid potentially catastrophic warming if fracking is used.)

Although Britain’s government had previously pledged to phase out coal by 2025, the alliance did not put forward any cut-off date and did not call for the end of financing for the coal industry. In any event, the members of the alliance account for less than 3% of worldwide coal use so its impact will be negligible. There were hopes in advance that the German chancellor Angela Merkel was going to announce that ‘green’ Germany would set a date for ending coal production. Instead, she decided to hold the climate talks in a venue an hour’s drive from a village that is going to be demolished to build a coal mine.

After the US pulled out of the Paris agreement, many delegates in Bonn were looking to China to take a lead, particularly since the levelling out of global emissions in the past three years was due in large part to reduced pollution from China. The latest data on emissions, however, has undermined this scenario. The Global Carbon Project has just produced preliminary data for 2017 which predicts that the upward climb in emissions has resumed, with a global increase of about 2%.

That data indicate that, in 2017, there were no further reductions in the USA, and a sizeable increase in China (3.5%), driven by a 3% increase in coal consumption, the result of a growth in industrial production. Chinese growth is the single most important reason for the resumption in global emissions, although the authors are hopeful that this may not continue since there was a downturn in industrial output in the last three months of 2017. The authors also expect growth will be checked after 2020 when the Paris agreement comes into force.

Unfortunately, in both cases, past experience does not bear out this optimism. None of the powers represented at Bonn, and the big corporations that stand behind them, consider tackling global warming to be a priority. Emissions may possibly go down again temporarily, but this will be due to fluctuations in capitalist economies or to the machinations of the state bureaucracy in China, or a combination of both. Complete system change is necessary before any progress can be made.

Pete Dickenson

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