Last week, US President Donald Trump followed through on his campaign promise to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, a set of voluntary commitments designed to slow the rate of climate change. At the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), an independent think tank on humanitarian issues, five experts within the field of international development analyse what this means for climate policy in the rest of the world. They emphasise how the agreements reached at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC must be upheld and increased by all powers – international and domestic, public and private.
Alex Their, Executive Director, ODI
‘I am angry by what has happened. We have been on an incredibly important journey over the last couple of decades to find common ground and think about how to address what is probably the most fundamental challenge humanity has ever faced. We reached a high point of cooperation, of concern and it was a goading to action for all of us. To see that moving backwards is deeply concerning. The impacts of climate change are real and they are enormous – the real cruelty is that it will most affect the poorest, the least able to deal with it and often the people that had the least responsibility for it.’
Isabel Hilton OBE, CEO, China Dialogue Trust
‘There has been some focus in what people – rather indulgently – call a lapse in US climate “leadership” and that China might step up instead. There have been many interesting signals from China on that. At Davos, President Xi stressed the importance of the Accord, and six days ago the nation joined the EU in stating the deal “was more imperative than ever”. So there is little doubt about China’s commitment.
‘Some people don’t realise how far China has come since Copenhagen, where it was regarded as something of a “bad boy” of climate change. Ten years ago, China was still addressing the issue of its own development and it chose a particularly carbon-intensive model. Since then, a remarkable transformation has taken place: it took the opportunity to become the supplier of a carbon-constrained global market by the time of Paris. Domestically, there has also been an accumulation of environmental issues such as soil, water and air, which makes the government vulnerable. Climate denial is not a huge issue in China.
‘That being said, relations between China and the US are often uncomfortable and a key element – and success – of the Paris Accord was that it was constructed as a win-win for both of them. Their cooperative statements became enablers of the agreement. So where are we now? One partner has left the stage yet again and China has been slightly thrust into a leadership role with which it is not entirely comfortable in terms of global diplomacy. I don’t expect China to do the kind of mobilising of the diplomatic map that is going to be required of the accord – it’s not what China has experience of, or what it is particularly good at. Instead the nation will probably be looking for partners and encouragement. In terms of China’s determined contributions, it is well within its comfort zone – so will China be interested in ratcheting up those commitments? We will see. China also has laggards within its own economy, it is also exporting emissions by building coal power stations abroad. The message since Paris, however, has been generally positive.’
Shelagh Whitley, Head of Programme, Climate and Energy, ODI
‘I think climate finance is very important and the fact that the US has said it is not going to fulfil its part is significant. However, as some have mentioned, the government commitments are in the realm of billions, our work at the ODI has moved towards the questions of the shifting trillions: the fiscal incentives such as carbon pricing and fossil fuel subsidies.
‘In that field, our work has focused on how many prioritise fossil fuels over renewable energy. Every year, G20 governments provide £450billion of subsidies to fossil fuels, almost four times the amount for renewables. Interestingly, there was no mention of fossil fuels in the Paris Agreement, in fact, there aren’t many mentions of specific solutions, fiscal or otherwise. Instead, what you have is this target of 1.5 degrees, which is a broad goal, but in order to actually meet it there are unwritten, strict restrictions about what resources can be exploited. If governments are to meet the two-degree goal or come close to 1.5, then only the oil and gas currently being extracted or in development can be used. In other words, those that already have steel and cement attached to them – and that’s not including coal. So we can’t explore for more oil and gas, we can’t develop recently discovered sources. That fact really frames what is possible, both in terms of curtailing demand for fossil fuels but also in curtailing supply. Fundamentally, climate impacts are happening much faster than expected but also the technology is evolving faster than expected, so governments will have to respond to that by looking very carefully at supply and demand. The Paris Agreement is just a guideline for how to get there.
‘At the same time, I’m encouraged now that with climate change it is all hands on deck. It may seem like parochial politics but recently in my home country, Canada, a new coalition has been formed by two parties with a very strong green agenda which could potentially protect the entire west coast from fossil fuel development. It emphasises that every city government fight and every provincial government fight is important and can actually create the space for federal governments to stay on track.’