Can Europe hold the climate line without the US?

The Paris climate change agreement two years ago was the high point in the global push to reverse rising temperatures and cut carbon emissions. US President Donald Trump’s pledge in June to pull out of the Paris deal, has clouded prospects for successful climate action. At the latest United Nations summit on climate change, COP23, which opened in Bonn, Germany on November 6, the challenge for the European Union is to keep the show going.

Around 20,000 people will attend the two-week COP23, where delegates will work out how to execute the Paris deal. They will address issues such as how countries will track and report their emissions and have them verified. This covers national plans, targets and milestones, which will be assessed and reviewed every five years, to see whether they are making an effective contribution. Britain, France and Germany have all proposed a ban on fossil fuel cars by the year 2040 and some countries, such as New Zealand, say they aim to reduce emissions to zero by 2050.

Although the Bonn conference lasts for a fortnight, national leaders and environment ministers are not expected until the second week, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron, and – in apparent defiance at Trump’s position – California Governor Jerry Brown will also attend.

The EU has long been the most vocal messenger when it comes to global warming, and the Paris deal was the culmination of years, if not decades, of European environmental diplomacy. The US, which had been a fervent EU ally on climate change during Barack Obama’s presidency, has now become a major brake. Indeed, the EU is bracing for the Trump administration to use the Bonn meeting to push for “clean coal” as a solution to climate change.

Paris deal still strong

It is testimony to the strength of the Paris deal that Trump’s decision to pull out will not change the fundamentals. The White House announcement actually triggered a powerful response in support of Paris. It prompted countries and stakeholders to advance and even intensify efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and boost resilience to climate impacts. Tellingly, no-one took seriously the President’s suggestion that the Paris deal should be renegotiated.

As the US is the world’s richest nation and second biggest polluter, its withdrawal will have an impact. But Washington is isolated on the issue: the US is soon to become the only nation in the world refusing to ratify – after Syria’s recent announcement. Under the rules, the US cannot leave the agreement until 2020, so they have sent a team of negotiators to Bonn. And as well as the official US delegation, there are representatives from many US states, cities and businesses who have already committed to help limit global warming.

With the US out of the equation, it has fallen to China to partner with the EU on climate issues. A decade ago, that would have sounded like a preposterous notion: China was responsible for some of the most polluting industries, surpassed the US in 2007 to become the biggest source of carbon emissions, and seemed like the biggest block to UN climate talks.

But there has been a remarkable turnaround in Chinese politics. Beijing accepts the health and environmental dangers of carbon emissions, has committed to a low-carbon economy (it was in 2014, ironically in a joint announcement with the US, that China pledged to peak its carbon emissions by 2030), and has invested heavily in renewable energy, becoming the world’s biggest producer of solar panels.

Indeed, the day after Trump announced he would withdraw from the Paris deal, the EU and China agreed at a summit in Brussels to step up their cooperation on climate change. China is now filling the void left by the US, and approaching the Bonn summit with the same determination as the EU. Beijing plans to roll out a national carbon market in the coming weeks. And as the world’s largest carbon emitter, accounting for 29% of the global emissions, China is well-placed to bridge the divide between rich and poor countries.

EU stepping up to the plate

China’s emergence as a climate leader puts pressure on the EU to keep up its own commitments. The EU’s record is strong, as it is expected to achieve its 2020 targets: greenhouse gas emissions have already fallen below the 20% reduction target; renewable energy use is growing faster than initially planned to reach the 20% target level; and energy consumption is set to reach the 2020 energy efficiency target. But the pace of reductions will slow down after that date. Last month, the European Parliament backed a resolution calling on the EU to raise its 2030 climate targets and to come up with a mid-century zero-emissions strategy before an all-important UN summit in 2018.

If the EU wants to stay ahead of the game, it must demand more ambitious commitments from its own member states. For example, Germany, the host of COP23, claims to be a green leader, but its decision to phase out nuclear power means more coal-fired generation. Germany is now set to miss its 2020 carbon cutting targets – an issue that has now been raised in the ongoing government coalition negotiations.

The EU should also engage more with the different actors such as cities and the private sector. Local and business action has been especially effective in the US, beginning more than a decade ago, and did much to mitigate the federal government’s then inaction on climate. The EU could follow this example, encouraging and uniting local actions, and use them to firm up member state commitments.

But above all, the EU needs to keep up its climate diplomacy. The Paris deal is one of its greatest international achievements, but climate politics are a process, not an end. At Bonn, the EU must ensure that even without the US, the world remains committed to a low-carbon future.

Author: Anett Toth | Leo Cendrowicz

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