Here in Marrakech, as in many other parts of the world, many people had to look twice when they awoke yesterday to the revelation that Republican candidate Donald J Trump had won the presidential election in the US.
Because in this context (the UN's global climate talks), clearly there are a great many concerns over his stance on the environment: his questioning of the climate change and pledge to “cancel” the global Paris Agreement, his plans to reduce the role of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), rescind Barack Obama's initiative for reducing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants (Clean Power Plan), encourage domestic extraction of fossil fuels such as coal and oil and stop contributing to the UN climate fund, to name but a few.
Climate talks going according to plan
In the negotiating room in Marrakech, there's no denying that the news from the US has created greater uncertainty over how to proceed with tackling climate issues. But this doesn't have a direct impact on the COP22 conference. The negotiators are continuing their urgent work on the basis of pre-defined instructions. And the targets that have been set for these talks, i.e. to produce a rulebook for the processes over the next few years and greater transparency etc., have not been directly affected.
Could Donald Trump withdraw from the climate agreement?
For the time being, therefore, the climate talks in Marrakech will proceed as planned. In the long term, however, things are more uncertain, amongst others since it seems unlikely that the US will be willing to pursue the more ambitious climate targets that will have to been set for 2025 and 2030. If the targets set by the Paris Agreement are to be achieved, it is of course crucial that those countries that emit the most CO2 in the world are on board – and the US is in second place in that ranking, just behind China.
Could Trump make his promise to “cancel” the Paris Agreement a reality? In order to answer this question, we should start by drawing a parallel with the Kyoto Protocol, which didn't go up in smoke just because George W Bush declared in 2001 that the accord was "dead".
The Paris Agreement has the support of 195 countries internationally, and, once again, it is not for one country to single-handedly determine its fate. It is worth noting also that the Paris Agreement has already entered into force and that there are rules for withdrawing from it. A country can only ask to withdraw from the agreement after three years, and this will be followed by a notice period of one year, i.e. a total of four years, which in many countries is a normal term of office.
At the same time, we should remember that there is nothing in the Paris Agreement that legally prevents a party from setting climate targets that are clearly insufficient to achieve the globally accepted overarching objective, or, for that matter, from failing to meet the targets that were announced in the run-up to Paris, because these parts of the agreement are not legally binding.
Will the increased awareness of climate change and the progress that has been made in recent years in converting the energy system in the US now be stopped in their tracks? I doubt it. Firstly, many of the political initiatives that we've seen in the US in recent years in the form of new emissions markets on both the west and east coast, for example, are not driven by Washington D.C. They came into being because individual states chose to take matters into their own hands, with support from climate-conscious residents. Secondly, the significant reduction in the consumption of coal that we have witnessed in the US is not the result of political decisions, but rather the fact that coal has been outcompeted, mainly by natural gas. So, CO2 emissions from the USA's energy supplies are decreasing anyway, whilst Obama and the EPA's Clean Power Plan, which is designed to reduce emissions of CO2 from coal-fired power plants, has been held up by the courts and may yet be consigned to a desk drawer before the ink is dry.
EU must lead the way
There is no concealing the fact that the global climate talks are in uncharted waters following the outcome of the US presidential election. In times of uncertainty it's crucial that others show even greater leadership. The EU, China and the other G20 nations must therefore make it quite clear that the plans are still in place and that it is in everybody's interests to tackle the threat posed by climate change. And clearly the private sector also has a responsibility to make it clear that the climate transition is eminently achievable and that there is neither time nor reason to look back. Then, all we can do is hope that the White House realises that a price on CO2 is not only key for those planning to invest in climate-friendly technology, but also for presidents who have promised huge tax cuts in other fields.