Reflections on COP22 by Geoff Martin (MS in ENVS)

COP22 – Action Time

Geoff Martin, Master's Student in Environmental Sciences at Emory University

I recently had the opportunity to attend the twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakech, Morocco as part of the delegation from Emory University. It was an experience that I had been looking forward to for months, an opportunity to observe high level climate negotiations and learn from some of the world’s most notable experts on climate change science and policy. COP21 in Paris just a year earlier had been a huge success – hailed by almost everyone from environmental activists to government officials, it finally felt like we might just be able to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Parties to the Agreement pledged to keep global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” with the even loftier, albeit likely impossible goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It seemed, to me at least, that we had gotten over the largest hurdle – a global agreement to aggressively curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to levels that would be “safe” for the planet. Now Parties just had to flesh out the details of the Agreement and of their plans to reduce emissions, or their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). When we arrived at the conference, we received a burlap gift bag which contained, among other things, a small notebook with the words “Action Time” printed on the front. I didn’t quite know what to expect leading up to the COP, but those two words certainly summed up what I had hoped for. It was action time.

But then, just two days into the conference, Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidential election. Given the fact that Trump has previously called climate change a Chinese hoax, announced during his campaign that if elected he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement, and dismantle the Clean Power Plan (the Obama Administration’s most ambitious effort to combat climate change), the election of Donald Trump looked like just about the worst thing that could happen for the climate. So, far from feeling inspirational, the words on the notebook I had received, “Action Time”, instead felt depressingly ironic and hollow.

I had heard from the members of the Emory University Delegation that had attended the first week of the conference that there was a weird feeling at the COP. Apparently the U.S. delegation did not have anything to say regarding the election and what it meant for the Paris Agreement, and there was an uneasy feeling at the conference. But at some point between the news of the election and the first day that I arrived, it seemed that Parties and Observers alike had retuned and refined their messages, and were ready to discuss their positions within the context of a new political reality.

Three Lessons from COP22

The International Community Will Move Forward
At the second week of the Conference, the mood felt anxiously determined. There was a sense, from all levels, that the world was going to move forward with climate action and the Paris Agreement with or without the U.S. and Donald Trump. French President Francios Hollande and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon both gave stern warnings to Trump about pulling out of the Paris Agreement, and argued that a global shift away from fossil-fuels is unstoppable. China, the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, reaffirmed its commitment to addressing climate change even if the U.S. could not. And a Chinese representative quashed the Trump-inspired rumor that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

The Challenge of Moving from Rhetoric to Practice
There was a lot of talk from experts from the United States about the feasibility of Trump’s terrifying plans to destroy the environment, like dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, canceling the Paris Agreement, and destroying the Clean Power Plan. I heard from many, including Josh Klein of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that “governing is a lot different than campaigning”. Trump needed to make contentious, headline-grabbing statements about climate change and the environment (and just about every other topic) while on the campaign trail to get attention and rile up his supporters. But when he takes office, he will find that implementing the bold actions he claimed he would take will be met without the political support, or legal authority, that would be needed to make these claims a reality.

Furthermore, Trump might just realize that pulling out of the international climate agreement might make negotiating with the rest of the world on anything close to impossible. Nathaniel Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund noted that the Bush Administration’s diplomatic efforts were significantly impacted by its decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. It is possible that President-elect Trump will learn from Bush’s mistake in greatly underestimating the importance of climate change to the rest of the world.

And it’s possible that much of what Trump said about climate change during his campaign is in fact just rhetoric. A few days after COP22, Trump said that there is “some connectivity” between humans and climate change. He went on to say that he “has an open mind” to keeping the U.S. in the Paris Agreement.

Can States, Cities, and Businesses Lead the Way in the U.S.?
A major theme of the conference focused on the subnational efforts taking place across the world, and in the U.S. in particular, to mitigate emissions. With side event titles such as “U.S. Climate Action at All Levels”, “Under 2 MOU: 2050 Strategies towards 1.5°C with States, Regions, and Cities”, and “Science-Policy Dialogue to Reach Paris Targets via Transformation at All Levels of Governments”, it was clear that while the Paris Agreement was an international treaty signed by national actors, efforts at the subnational level were always seen as critical to meeting the well under 2-degree target. While the aforementioned events and others like it were all planned long before the election of Donald Trump, they all adopted the theme of, “if he’s not going to do anything, we will”.

The Secretary of Natural Resources for Vermont reaffirmed her state’s efforts to cut emissions and to expand the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the first mandatory market-based effort to curb GHG emissions in the U.S., beyond the 9 states that currently participate. Matt Rodriguez, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, noted that it was under George Bush’s presidency that California passed AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which set aggressive goals to reduce the state’s GHG emissions. Now California, the state with the largest economy in the country, is working internationally through the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) to sharply reduce emissions using a market-based system. And many pointed to Under2 MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), a coalition of 165 jurisdictions representing 1.08 billion people worldwide that have committed to reducing their GHG emissions by 80 to 90% by 2050, as strong evidence that subnational efforts can have a global impact.

COP22 also saw a strong showing from the American business community, including representatives from Microsoft, Google, Mars Inc., Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Kellog, and others. Representatives touted their company’s efforts to reduce their carbon footprint, like Microsoft’s internal carbon tax, or Mars Inc.’s renewable energy targets. Another major argument made by businesses at the conference was that the market for renewables is expanding rapidly, regardless of state or federal policy. Cathy Woollums of Berkshire Hathaway Energy illustrated this point, noting that Iowa was the first state to pass a renewable portfolio standard with the Alternative Energy Production law of 1983, which required investor-owned utilities to own or source 105 megawatts (MW) of renewable generating capacity. That standard has remained unchanged since 1983, but Berkshire Hathaway Energy is in the process of constructing a 2,000 MW wind farm, which will help supply 85% of Iowa’s electricity demand from renewable power by 2020. The main message from these business leaders was that action on climate change is good for business, and companies will continue to green their processes regardless of policy changes.

By the end of the week, amidst Secretary of State John Kerry’s rousing affirmation of U.S. commitment to climate action, and U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change John Pershing’s release of the “United States Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization”, I felt like maybe things really will be okay. There was a sense that we were already on the path to a carbon-neutral world, and straying from that path might actually be harder than staying the course.

Post-COP Reflections and a Way Forward

It would be foolish, however, to think that the forces described above – the absence of political or legal ground for the Trump administration to fully dismantle years of climate action; the bold steps being taken by states and municipalities independent of federal requirements; market forces and commitments from the business community – will be enough to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Climate change is accelerating at a shocking rate. The ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 19982015 broke the 2014 record for the warmest year ever recorded. And 2016 is on its way to surpassing the record set just last year. 2016 will also likely be the first year in human history that atmospheric CO2 concentrations remain above 400 parts per million, and concentrations will stay that high for generations to come.

Furthermore, a report by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) warned that at current emissions levels, the world will emit between 8 to 12 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide more than the level needed to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C by 2020. And according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), even hopes of meeting the less ambitious goal of keeping temperature rise below 2°C could vanish within the next 30 years. It is alarmingly clear how urgent this crisis is. Those two words on the notebook given to participants by the COP22 organizers – action time – could not be more accurate. If we don’t act now, and in a way that truly revolutionizes the way we do just about everything, the Earth will warm to levels unprecedented in human history, and remain that warm for thousands of years.

Amidst this disturbing reality, we have elected a man that has chosen a notorious climate change denier to lead the transition team for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So is the fact that President-elect Trump acknowledged that there might be “some connectivity” between humans and climate change, or that he has “an open mind” to the Paris Agreement really cause for relief? In a country where 24 states are suing the EPA over the CPP, stalling and attempting to derail the first major federal effort to address carbon emissions from the power sector, can we really believe that subnational efforts are going to be enough meet a 1.5- or 2-degree target? And while market trends are certainly heading in the right direction with regard to renewables and other climate-friendly technologies, can we rely on the private sector alone to drive the emissions cuts that we need to see?

The answer to all of the above questions is clearly, “no”. Despite all of the optimism coming from various speakers at COP22, including representatives of the Obama Administration, meeting the necessary targets for carbon emissions without the full-fledged support of the federal government will be next to impossible. Even the White House’s own hopeful report on strategies for deep decarbonization stresses the importance of federal regulations in meeting these targets.

What now then? Is all hope lost? Maybe not. After all, the emissions reductions necessary to avoid catastrophic warming laid out in the reports by UNEP and the IPCC were global targets. While I tend to get caught up in U.S. climate efforts and policy (as I have done throughout this report), one thing that COP22 awakened me to is that there are actually a lot of other countries in the world, most of which are more advanced in their thinking about climate change than the U.S. Despite the uncertainty over what the U.S. election means for U.S. climate commitments, every country at COP22 reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement in the Marrakech Proclamation. As Climate Analytics CEO Bill Hare put it, “Provided political leaders globally maintain their commitment to action… we should be able to ride through the turbulence that a climate sceptic in the White House could bring”.

Back in the U.S., all hope is not lost either. Innovation at the state, local, and business levels will undoubtedly lead the way. But let’s remember that these policies and actions are not simply the result of political or business leadership. Rather, a growing movement of climate activists has put immense pressure on representatives to address climate change. This is equally true at the federal level. In 2015, the Obama administration gave fossil fuel giant Shell permission to drill in the Arctic. But amidst fiery protests led by environmental organizations such as and Greenpeace, Shell decided not to pursue its Arctic project. Granted, the decision to pull out of the project likely had more to do with economics than activist pressure, but there is no question that civilian protests have played a key role in shutting fossil fuel projects like these down. Nationwide protests and a petition with over 500,000 signatures helped to prevent the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015. A year later, protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline forced the Obama administration to revoke a previously issued permit for the contested portion of its construction. And the historic 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, which drew an estimated 300,000 people ahead of the UN Climate Summit, undoubtedly helped to build support for global climate action. Underestimating the effect that activism can have in forcing the hand of political leaders, even that of Donald Trump, would be a huge mistake.

There is absolutely no question that the Trump election is very bad news for the climate. But whether or not his stance on climate change has become more moderate in the weeks since the election is almost irrelevant. The world needs concerted and aggressive programs to sharply curb emissions immediately in order to avoid catastrophe. This is not the difference between calling climate change a hoax and acknowledging that there is “some connectivity” between humans and climate change. It is a much, much greater difference. President-elect Trump is not going to be the one to make up that difference.

Instead, citizens need to demand, now more than ever, that their leaders do everything possible to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement. And it just might be possible, even here in the U.S. The reality is that a majority of Republicans, including self-identified conservative Republicans, believe that climate change is real and human caused. And new polling finds that a record number of Americans accept the reality of climate change and are concerned about it. Furthermore, the level of concern is rising across all party groups. The majority of Trump voters, likely the vast majority, did not base their decision on Trump’s position on climate. Nor did Trump, as Klein of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted, run his campaign on ending climate action. There is the hope, then, that if and when Trump tries to take the country on a road to climate disaster by attempting to gut the EPA, pull out of the Paris Agreement, build the Keystone XL pipeline, or otherwise, Americans will react. Those for whom climate change has been a concern but not a priority might just be inspired to take action that they otherwise would not have under a different, less extreme presidency. And those that have already taken part in the movement to act on climate might now be willing to go to greater lengths to ensure that the U.S. plays the strongest role possible in the global effort to fight climate change. “Action Time”, then, is not the ironic slogan of a foregone political climate, but rather a reinvigorated call to the U.S. and global community, demanding that we hold our leaders accountable in meeting the urgent challenges of climate change. I truly hope we will heed that call.