ENERGY WATCH #1 - November 29, 2018
An ever-changing political landscape, characterised by the US-China trade war, presents both challenges and opportunities for negotiators to further cement the Paris climate deal at the latest UN COP discussions in Poland.
The stage is set
As the latest UN climate talks open in Katowice, Poland this week, the shift in power of the national representatives in the room will be truly palpable. In the face of President Trump’s decision last year to remove the US from the internationally agreed Paris accord, China has the opportunity to show leadership on an issue upon which it has for decades turned its back.
Hailed as “Paris 2.0”, COP24 will call on negotiators to put together the pieces, directions and guidelines so that the deal struck in the French capital three years ago has the desired outcome. And the suggestions, objections and ideas put forward by the world’s two biggest polluters will be crucially important in the success, or otherwise, of the discussions. “What we saw in Paris was a clear example of the transformation already underway in the world. The train has left the station. Whoever is not in it will be left behind,” says UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa, while acknowledging the complexity of the negotiations that lie ahead.
“What we saw in Paris was a clear example of the transformation already underway in the world. The train has left the station. Whoever is not in it will be left behind,” UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa
In years gone by, the influence of China in slowing down progression on the development and implementation of national greenhouse gas emission targets, for example, was neatly counterbalanced by US negotiators. The diplomatic muscle shown by seasoned Washington representatives helped to draw China closer to its own stance, which while some argue did not, for many years, go far enough, was at least in favour of having a strong climate agreement.
“with China as a powerbroker, maintaining the robustness of the Paris deal could become harder”
The ongoing US-China trade war – which has seen Beijing threaten to impose new tariffs on US$60 billion worth of US imports in retaliation for Trump’s hardline stance on Chinese steel imports, for example – could well set the tone for COP24.
Now, with China as a powerbroker, maintaining the robustness of the Paris deal could become harder, with the adoption of more flexible rules for developing countries still a bone of contention. Bangkok played host to an international preparatory meeting of nations, where the core issues of climate finance and the degree of flexibility developing countries should be given on the reporting and auditing of emissions data for national commitments under the Paris Agreement left negotiators “stalemated” according to Alden Meyer, director of strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
China has made its position clear that developing countries should be given more relaxed reporting standards than those used by industrialised nations; poorer nations do not have the capacity for complex emissions modelling, is the argument. Of course, the fact that China insists on being treated as a ‘developing nation’ in the context of collective action on climate change gives extra edge to the debate.
The US – which along with the EU and many other nations, says all countries should have the same reporting rules with only a ‘limited degree’ of flexibility for developing countries – has already taken steps to keep China in check. It recently blocked its move to apply for funding from the UN’s Green Climate Fund, money reserved for the poorest countries to pay for climate change mitigation projects.
“the success of COP24 in meeting its objectives rests on the determination of Paris-deal advocates to develop new relationships”
Represented by Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead climate negotiator for the past decade, Beijing will also have the strength of its resolve on global warming tested in how it manages to redirect finance away from its burgeoning coal sector. Despite heavy investment in clean energy (China accounted for around half of all solar PV expansion in 2016), the world’s biggest emitter remains heavily dependent on coal. Right now, China has 993 gigawatts of coal power capacity. Recently approved plants that are currently under construction will increase this by 25%.
Reversing this trend is made all the more politically and economically difficult by the US position on fossil-fuel based generation, especially if Trump’s abandonmentof the Obama-era Clean Power Plan is anything to go by.
Role of the EU
Back in 2015, it was the US, China and the EU (led by Germany, the UK and France) that successfully rallied the likes of Brazil and a wealth of small island countries to get the Paris deal signed. Today, a very different political landscape has emerged, potentially steering the talks off course.
The German chancellor Angela Merkel – a key proponent of the original deal – has announced her intention to step down in 2021. Brazil’s newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro has promised to further open up the Amazon to mining, agriculture and construction. And the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the country will not “tip money” into the UN’s global climate fund – neither will it rule out a quick end to coal.
The July signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the EU and China might signal an intent for closer ties between the two this time around. Certainly, the success of COP24 in meeting its objectives rests on the determination of Paris-deal advocates to develop new relationships that will galvanise much-needed political leadership, whether the US or China show up or not.
Tom Idle is a journalist and commentator in the field of corporate responsibility and sustainability