– by Thomas R. Loster
© picture-alliance/ZUMA press
Leadership: China supplied the summit hosts with zero-emission electric buses.
The 22nd Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change had an important, but largely technical agenda. The topic was how to implement the Paris Agreement that was agreed at the COP in December last year. Many details, concerning finance for instance, need to be hammered out. Experience tells us that this kind of agenda is difficult, hence summits normally only make slow progress.
Marrakesh delivered solid results nonetheless. It appears that the agreement on implementation modalities will be finalised in 2018. It matters that the COP in Marrakesh laid the necessary foundations.
The conference had just begun when the US elections were held. The victory of Donald Trump, who had called global warming a “Chinese hoax” during the campaign, initially came as a shock. However, this shock did not result in resignation. It strengthened resolve and fostered consensus among negotiators. What Trump will do as president remains to be seen. He will probably have to accept concerns of realpolitik to some extent. To quit the Paris Agreement is legally difficult and would take years. Should he choose to do so, he would obviously alienate the entire and increasingly ambitious international community.
The COP’s response to the US elections could have been totally different, of course. Governments might have opted for some kind of “wait and see” attitude, but they chose to press ahead.
Three days earlier, the Paris Agreement had come into force at record speed, within a mere 11 months. This too is evidence of multilateral determination.
China’s attitude mattered very much in Marrakesh. Its negotiators made it very clear that backtracking is not an option. The People’s Republic declared itself ready to keep leading on climate change and environmental issues as it has been doing for many years. China’s relevance is probably still being underestimated by many – and Trump may be among them. Seven years ago, at the climate summit in Copenhagen, China had already acted in an assertive manner, emphasising its global relevance. One must not forget, moreover, that China holds huge US debts.
Germany set a good example in Marrakesh too. The Federal Government’s action plan may have been assessed controversially at home, but the COP community appreciated it. Tangible measures encourage and generate trust. Mexico, Canada and the USA also presented plans. To what extent Trump will adopt Obama’s policies is an open question, of course, but he will not be able to role back everything. One reason is that sub-national governments, such as the one of California, the most populist and economically most important state, have set their own climate goals. Another is that renewables have become cheaper, so they are attractive in business terms. Generally speaking, climate protection can benefit massively from technological progress, for example in the fields of storing electric power or raising efficiency.
It was recently in the news that there is less ice on the seas than there has been for millennia. Moreover, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) now estimates that 2016 will turn out to be the hottest year on record. The pressure to act is certainly growing. The fact that greenhouse gas emissions have actually not increased, but stayed more or less the same for three years in a row gives food for thought. While this development does not suffice to prevent catastrophic climate change, it does indicate that the tipping point towards lower emissions may be close at hand.
Thomas Loster is the chairman of Munich Re Foundation.