Keep calm and carry on…

It was a strange mix of moods at the Marrakesh climate talks today, following Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.

Some were defiant. Others despaired. And some were going about their business as if nothing had happened.

This is odd given that president-elect Trump has threatened to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement, which saw 195 nations agree to phase out the use of fossil fuels — an agreement that the Marrakesh talks are now trying to put into action.

Whether or not the US could legally exit the Paris agreement is somewhat of a moot point. But there are plenty of ways the US could torpedo the deal.

So why was it business-as-usual for many? Because:

  1. Trump will not take power until January, so the US negotiating position remains officially unchanged.
  2. It is not yet clear how Trump’s manifesto pledges will translate into solid policy.
  3. What else is everyone supposed to do?

In many ways, this is reflective of the UNFCCC process. The Marrakesh talks mostly revolve around establishing agendas for the next two years of negotiations, and are quite technical. Unlike the Paris deal, which required high-level agreement from heads of state, these are talks that can happily continue despite the threat of high-level changes in policy.

At press briefings by NGOs and business groups, the message was: “Let’s wait and see what he does.”

Some noted that, as a renowned dealmaker, Trump might not pull out of the treaty if offered agreements that fulfilled US interests in other ways.

It’s not yet clear what those might be. But it is clear that countries around the world started taking action on climate before the Paris deal was struck. Air pollution, energy security, and a desire not to miss out on the clean technology boom are all reasons that China and other countries have started to move on the issue.

And this action has fast brought down the costs of renewables.

If these costs continue to fall at the rates the IEA predicts, then they could soon undercut thermal generation in many parts of the world, even without carbon taxes or subsidies. That suggests that a lack of US action on climate would not equate to a lack of global action.

So the hope of many in Marrakesh is that economics could take care of climate change all by itself —although currently a key piece of the puzzle is missing in the lack of adequate energy storage.

Granted, even if this happens, there are many sectors that would still be emitting copiously — road transport, shipping and aviation come to mind. But parties to the Paris deal had not yet established how they were going to decarbonise these sectors. Aviation and shipping weren’t even part of the deal.

As one delegate said to me today: “If it’s just four years of Trump, that’s pretty short compared with how long this process [of attempted global action on climate] has been going on. It’s bad, we’ll lose more time. But we’ve lost a lot of time already. What has really put a rocket under things recently is the technology, and that’s not going away.”

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