Donald Trump’s election as US president cast a deep shadow over this year’s UN climate summit in Marrakesh, where there was a feeling of a huge blow dealt to global efforts to address climate change. But China is likely to emerge a clear winner — both in the clean energy revolution and on the global stage of climate change politics.
The latest round of UN talks kicked off on a high note, after the Paris deal entered into force less than a year after it was signed. That it is one of the most quickly ratified international deals ever gave good reason for optimism. But news of Trump’s election victory left delegates shell-shocked. It was the outcome that many had feared, but for which nearly no-one was prepared.
Trump has repeatedly threatened that he will pull the US out of the Paris deal if he was elected president. The Paris deal was founded on a new partnership between the US and China, which together account for around 40pc of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These two countries’ leadership helped catalyse the extraordinary momentum on climate action seen in the past year.
So Trump’s victory seemed to threaten the very survival of the landmark climate deal. It also threw UN climate negotiations into an existential crisis as, without the engagement of the world’s largest economy — and the second-largest GHG emitter — the process can seem somewhat futile.
As a result, the mood among Marrakesh delegates turned from celebratory to one of sombre defiance. A total of 11 countries, representing around 9pc of global GHG emissions and including the UK, Japan and Australia, ratified the deal during the two-week summit. The Obama administration, Canada, Mexico and Germany put forward 2050 GHG reduction targets as part of their mid-century low-carbon plans.
There was a swell of renewed support from the private sector, with more than 360 US businesses, including some dozen Fortune 500 firms, calling on Trump to implement the Paris deal. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s nearly 200 member countries affirmed their commitment to implement the Paris deal fully — regardless of the US’ future actions — in the Marrakesh Action Proclamation issued at the summit’s end.
This nearly unanimous show of solidarity among governments and private-sector support for climate action is heartening and gives reason for hope. But it was undermined by an absence of adequate funding pledges and a lack of progress on issues of substance at the summit.
The extraordinary speed at which the deal was ratified caught parties by surprise and, realistically, the pace of negotiations in Marrakesh would not have been able to match it — even if Trump’s election victory had not put a spanner in the works.
As the first post-Paris summit, the 22nd Conference of the Parties (Cop 22) would start to develop the rules that would enable the deal’s implementation. But even before its start, non-governmental organisation representatives and other observers said they did not anticipate this year’s summit to deliver “anything big”. So, despite being branded the “action COP” by the Moroccan presidency, expectations were very modest. In the end, the meeting agreed on 2018 as the deadline for finalising the rules and prepared the ground for the work that needs to be done ahead of this.
Every UN climate summit brings a staggering number of new initiatives and this year’s was no exception. Amid the onslaught of public relations exercises, it can be hard to distinguish show from substance.
But even given modest expectations, the funding announced for climate action in the developing world was minuscule compared with the trillions of dollars that will be needed to halt dangerous climate change.
The Adaptation Fund was thrown a lifeline of more than $80mn, while $50mn was pledged for a capacity-building initiative for transparency (CBIT) and $23mn for the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN).
None of this adds up to nearly enough — even the $3bn pledged by the US for the Green Climate Fund last year is in the balance, given that the bulk of this has to be approved by a Republican-controlled administration.
No doubt, US federal action will slow and, in some cases, reverse. Trump has undertaken to dismantle the Obama administration’s clean power plan aimed at cutting power sector emissions. But it will take time for him to do so. In the meantime, many utilities have already started to shut down their older and less efficient coal-fired plants, and they might be reluctant to change course now. Many US states also support accelerated climate action and they will implement climate-friendly policies.
But US industry is still likely to be left behind in the global clean energy revolution. This will enhance China’s chances — not only to usurp the US as an economic powerhouse, but also to emerge as a climate change leader on the global stage.