Nations Seek Progress at Morocco Climate Talks, After Paris Breakthrough

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By Dean Scott

Nov. 3 — Negotiators from nearly 200 nations are arriving at a UN climate change summit for the first time without the specter of years, or even decades, of failed climate deals hanging over their heads.

The Nov. 7-18 Marrakech summit comes less than a year after the nations of the world clinched the first truly global climate pact in Paris, one that virtually everyone assumed would take years to ratify and implement.

Instead, more than 90 parties—including the U.S. but also rapidly developing China, India and Brazil—have already formally joined the accord, more than enough countries to ensure it goes into effect Nov. 4, just days before the two-week Morocco summit opens.

Now what?

Perhaps to tamp down expectations, veteran negotiators and environmental groups that track the negotiations are quick to note what won’t be done at the Morocco summit, or at best will get minimal attention at the summit, known formally as the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

For one, negotiators won’t be considering further strengthening the pledges nations made to cut greenhouse gases; those aren’t scheduled to be revisited until a 2018 “facilitative dialogue” where the parties are to assess whether they need to be more ambitious to address the global climate threat.

There is broad agreement that the actions developed and developing nations pledged, called Nationally Determined Contributions, aren’t enough. A Nov. 3 report from the UN Environment Program warned that the world still needs to shave another 25 percent of its projected greenhouse gas emissions through 2030 to avoid blowing past the global temperature goal nations agreed to in Paris.

Emissions Gap Looms Ahead

Under the Paris pact, countries vowed to keep global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, compared to pre-industrial levels, and “pursue efforts” to hold the line at a 1.5 degree Celsius increase (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

The 2016 Emissions Gap Report, the first UNEP has issued since the climate deal was reached in December, says the world is still on track to see temperatures rise between 2.9 degrees Celsius and 3.4 degrees Celsius later this century.The report says global emissions totaled 52.7 gigatons in 2014 and have been on the rise for decades; in recent years emissions have increased at about 1.8 percent a year, although that’s an improvement over the 3.5 percent increase in 2010 and 2011.

Work Plan Expected for Implementation

On the Morocco agenda will be how to ensure nations are transparent in the monitoring, reporting and verification of their climate actions, although again, final decisions—on what negotiators refer to as “modalities, procedures and guidelines” for implementing the Paris Agreement—also aren’t due until 2018. Thus, negotiators say, expect only modest progress in Marrakech.

Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, said the speedy entry into force means negotiators are now under pressure to produce some results in Morocco, even if they are largely in the form of a “work plan” for the multiyear implementation of key issues in the Paris pact. Those issues include transparency of each country’s actions on emissions but also how to help nations vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate impacts adapt to those changes.

“So the work plan happens here” at the Morocco summit, “and the work itself will take place between now and probably 2018,” Pershing told reporters Nov. 3. “So I don’t anticipate that we will see a set of decisions that are conclusive from this meeting [but] more like, how will the work be carried forward [and] what do we want to prioritize?”

Essentially, Pershing said, negotiators now have to construct what many of them call a “rule book” to implement the Paris deal. The largely procedural Morocco summit is getting more attention and facing slightly raised expectations because virtually no one expected countries to get the climate pact across the finish line this soon.

Finance, Loss and Damage

The nearly 200 nations also are likely to resume a still-simmering debate over whether richer nations provide enough funding and technological aid to help vulnerable developed nations adapt to climate impacts; there will also be a review of progress thus far on how to address the loss and damage suffered by nations already being hit by climate impacts.

Also expected: several countries, including the U.S., are to discuss how they hope to decarbonize their economies by 2050; countries were called on to prepare such plans under the Paris pact. Pershing said, however, that it’s unlikely the U.S. will actually release its detailed plan in Morocco.

“We intend to have it by the end of the year,” he told reporters Nov. 3, adding “the exact plan is still to be determined.”

All Eyes on U.S. Elections

The Morocco summit also opens against the backdrop of the Nov. 8 U.S. election between Democrat Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to build on the Obama administration’s climate agenda, and Republican nominee Donald Trump, who wants to dismantle it.

The U.S. election, which includes the possibility Democrats who favor legislative climate action will win control of at least the Senate, will almost certainly have the attention of negotiators looking to be reassured that the U.S. is not on the verge of walking away from engagement with China and other nations in crafting an international approach to climate change.

The good news, says David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s international climate initiative: at least negotiators likely won’t have long to wait before they know the results of the election.

U.S. voters go to the polls on the second day of the two-week Morocco COP. Barring something unexpected, negotiators won’t be holding their breath over the entire 10-day summit to gauge whether the U.S. intends to remain a player on the international climate front.

“So there won’t be anticipation for very long,” he said.Global cooperation on climate has come a long way, Waskow said, from March 2001 when President George W. Bush essentially withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol, citing concerns that only developed nations faced binding emissions targets under the deal. The Paris Agreement by contrast commits developed and developing nations to act, although the actions they will take were offered as pledges rather than mandatory targets.

It’s unusual for the annual climate summit to be held against the backdrop of a U.S. presidential election: President Barack Obama had won his first term nearly a month before the 2008 UN climate summit opened in Poland. Obama also had already won re-election weeks before the 2012 summit in Qatar.

Even if Trump wins, Waskow predicted the candidate would likely have to rethink his calls for withdrawing from the deal once those larger diplomatic entanglements became more evident. The issue of climate change has moved away from the “periphery of international diplomacy to one that is very much in the center” of diplomatic relationships among the U.S., China, India and other nations, Waskow said.

Climate Woven Into Diplomatic Relations

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the former Peruvian environment minister who oversaw the 2014 summit in Lima, told Bloomberg BNA any preoccupation with the U.S. election results will give way to the task at hand in Morocco.

“Even though the COP coincides with the U.S. election, that is not going to change the expectation of what needs to come out of this COP,” which is concrete progress on implementing the Paris deal, said Pulgar-Vidal, who now heads WWF’s climate and energy practice.

Besides the early work on the rulebook for implementing the Paris deal, the November summit will highlight the need for continued engagement by the private sector, cities and others outside the negotiating rooms deemed crucial to getting the Paris climate deal agreed to one year ago.

Morocco climate envoy Hakima El Haite told Bloomberg BNA the summit will include a focus on the needs of developing countries, which account for the bulk of emissions over the coming decades. There will also be events in Marrakech to “brainstorm” about new solutions from cities, regional governments, the private sector and other institutions and include daily themes to highlight climate challenges and solutions for agriculture as well as oceans.The Morocco talks are also to review work done over the last three years on the issue of loss and damage suffered by poorer countries vulnerable to climate change. Negotiators at the 2013 talks in Poland launched the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage to address the issue, although the U.S. and many other richer countries have made it clear they’ll strongly resist any notion they are on the hook financially for such damage.

The Paris pact included a compromise, providing developing nations an explicit reference to the loss and damage issue in the text. But in a concession to developed nations, the text of the deal cautions that nothing in the agreement should be interpreted as a “basis for any liability or compensation.”

The Open and Suspend Option

One looming issue: As host of the first climate summit since the Paris deal crossed the finish line, Morocco would like the bragging rights that would come with hosting the first meeting of the body set up by negotiators in Paris to begin implementing the agreement. That body would go by the unwieldy title of the first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement, or the CMA. But that new body can only do so much on even the most technical or procedural issues such as greenhouse gas reporting and accounting rules. That’s because more than half of the nations that adopted the deal in Paris haven’t ratified it and thus wouldn’t have official standing there.

One simple solution is to open and then suspend that negotiating track. Thus, the first meeting of the CMA is in fact slated to open in Morocco—it’s now on the schedule to do so on Nov. 15, just before the opening of the summit’s high-level segment brings top negotiators into the fold. The high-level segment brings world leaders and top ministers into the final days of the negotiations along with presentation by outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who made getting a global agreement in Paris one of his top priorities.

At best, the first meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement would remain open only a few days for what most expect to be relatively informal speeches and presentations. It’ll then be suspended and resumed, possibly as early as the next mid-year climate negotiations to be held in Bonn, Germany.

Suspending the CMA wouldn’t bring work to a halt on implementation because the parties have a separate negotiating track—the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (ADP), launched by the parties at the Paris talks and including those that have yet to ratify the deal. The ADP is to continue to push procedures and policies forward. Down the road, its draft decisions would be funneled to the CMA for formal adoption.

One priority for the U.S. and other countries in Morocco will be to get a firm date for concluding CMA-1, say in two or so years, but well before the 2018 facilitative dialogue.

Negotiators opted for the 2018 dialogue to ensure countries move quickly to consider strengthening their emissions reduction pledges; the Paris deal doesn’t call for a more thorough global “stocktake” to assess a range of actions to meet the agreement’s long-term goals until 2023, and every five years after that. The 2018 dialogue is more limited, essentially a review of only mitigation efforts, and the actual revised pledges are expected in 2020.

The Morocco summit also could be an opportunity for negotiators and climate advocates to pressure some top greenhouse gas emitters that have yet to ratify the deal, a group that includes Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter as well as Japan (5th) and Australia (14th). Some of the countries yet-to-ratify are likely to use the spotlight of the Marrakech negotiations to announce they have formally joined the pact.

Resisting a Weak Outcome

Environmental and other groups that closely monitor the UN negotiations say the low-stakes nature of this year’s summit could free up negotiators to make more progress than might be expected.

“We will definitely see real decisions at COP-22 as it is not a terribly high-stakes COP, which means that there aren’t any huge, grand bargains that people are going to die in a ditch over,” said Liz Gallagher, senior policy adviser at E3G, which pushes for global climate action.

But “it is the precision and the very clear mandate that those decisions give that is at stake,” she said, adding that “a weak outcome in Marrakech could put the future regime on the wrong path” in which countries lose sight of the need to accelerate implementing the accord.The talks also open on the heels of surprising progress this year on two other related global climate deals: one, struck in mid-October in Kigali, Rwanda, is to rapidly reduce global consumption and production of super polluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs], used in air conditioning and refrigeration; a second reached weeks before targeting carbon pollution from international flights, which was concluded only after roughly two decades of talks under the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization.

Suddenly, Need to Show Progress

That perhaps unexpected progress, along with early entry into force of the Paris pact, has put the two officials overseeing the negotiations in the somewhat awkward position of having to demonstrate tangible progress at talks that were never intended to produce it: Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Salaheddine Mezouar, who will serve as COP president for the Marrakech talks, and the new head of the UN climate secretariat, Mexico’s former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Patricia Espinosa.

Morocco will be Espinosa’s first high-level UN climate summit since taking the position in July; her predecessor Christiana Figueres had led the negotiations for six years before departing months earlier. Espinosa, in a statement issued at the UN’s Climate Week event in September, said she wants progress on implementing the Paris deal on multiple fronts in Marrakech.

At COP-22, “[m]any issues need to be progressed, ranging from the development of a rule book to operationalize the agreement up to building confidence among developing countries” that industrialized nations will make good on their pledge to provide $100 billion in annual climate funding by 2020. Negotiators at the 2015 Paris climate talks formalized that pledge, designed to help developing nations cut carbon pollution and adapt to climate impacts.

The world is “out of the blocks” given the number of countries that have already formally joined the Paris Agreement, but it is “by no means the end” for global action that is likely to take decades, she warned, to halt rising emissions linked to warming global temperatures.

The Paris Agreement is going into effect as of Nov. 4 because countries more than surpassed the agreed-upon threshold to get it across the finish line—at least 55 nations accounting for 55 percent of global emissions had to deposit instruments of ratification or other documents showing they had joined. They hit that mark on Oct. 5, clearing the way for the deal to enter into force 30 days later, on Nov. 4.

As of Nov. 3, a total of 94 nations had ratified the Paris Agreement.

Eric J. Lyman in Rome contributed to this story

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington, D.C., at DScott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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