Shifting sands – hopes and fears for a new climate agreement

13 Nov 2020

DRD Partner Pete Bowyer is a veteran of four COPs, starting in Copenhagen (2009) when he was chief spokesman on climate justice issues to the former Secretary General of the UN, HE Kofi Annan. He subsequently advised the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was embedded in the Blue Zone in Le Bourget for the full two weeks of the 2015 Paris COP.

Elliptical politics

It is often remarked that politics is circular. Elliptical, however, may be a better description. Like the orbits of the planets, issues burn bright for a while at their perihelion then slowly fade before returning to the light once again.

So too for the UN Climate Summits, the annual COP (‘Conference of the Parties’) negotiations which, only once every five or six years or so, really matter. This year’s COP, scheduled to be held in Glasgow, was slated to have been one of those years, like its predecessor conferences in Rio (1992), Kyoto (1997), Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015). Had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic we would currently have been halfway through the two week marathon inter-governmental talks and heading towards what might have been another landmark agreement.

Instead this year’s COP has been pushed back a year to November 2021, and whilst the climate crisis is real and urgent, a little more time may be no bad thing to allow the stars to align. Few had held out much hope of progress this year with President Trump still in the White House but, assuming of course that Trump has eventually conceded by then, things could look very different in 2021 under a Biden Presidency.

Their approaches to action on climate are almost polar opposite. Trump infamously took the United States out of the Paris Agreement, has weakened environmental restrictions at home and promoted the moribund US coal industry in his rust-belt heartlands. The President-Elect, on the other hand, has made fighting the climate crisis one of his key priorities, pledging $2tn of spending on clean energy. In his victory speech last weekend, Biden promised “to marshal the forces of science and forces of hope in the great battles of our time, including the battle to save our planet by getting climate under control.” Most significantly in terms of geo-politics, on the day Trump formally withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, the President-Elect tweeted that in “exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will re-join it” promising to make it one of his first acts as the newly inaugurated President.

That is all well and good, but the climate crisis has not stood still in the years since the Paris deal was reached in 2015. In the words of US political commentator, Jason Bordoff, America re-joining the Paris Agreement “is necessary, but far from sufficient” in tackling the crisis. Back in 2015, world leaders agreed to take steps to ensure that global temperature increases were restricted to 2°C above pre-industrial averages, but the science has moved on in the interim. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which provides the scientific bedrock for political deals like that agreed in Paris, now says that temperature increases must be limited to 1.5°C to avoid catastrophic global climate change. That is the challenge that world leaders now face in ratcheting up the level of commitments made five years ago (which, incidentally, have only haphazardly, at best, been implemented by nations states themselves since). Further global co-operation – and corroboration – is desperately required.

Rejuvenating the special relationship

Enter stage right Boris Johnson, who Biden once described as a “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump.” There is little that unites the two leaders politically – Biden is notably dismayed about Brexit which he views as an historic mistake – but action on climate change may hold the key to rejuvenating the much-loved “special relationship” (at least on the British side).

Johnson has never been viewed by the climate community as a natural ally, but his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, is, and as this week’s power struggle in Downing Street demonstrates, she holds increasing sway. More to the point, he is desperate for an international diplomatic success to demonstrate to the world that in a post-Brexit world, Britain still retains international influence – and can go one better than the French did in Paris.

Boris was quick to congratulate Biden on his success and put co-operation on climate change at the top of the agenda when they spoke, offering a UK-US partnership ahead of next year’s Glasgow COP26 summit. Britain, one of the very few countries in the world that has already created its own national laws to enforce de-carbonisation, hopes to be able to prod the US into setting its own 2050 net-zero targets under a Biden Administration.

But many fear that the UK, now outside of the EU, has diminished diplomatic clout. As Britain’s Rachel Kyte, previously the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change put it, “You are going to have a dialogue going on between the EU and China and US, and things are moving. But the UK is not in the middle of that anymore, so you have to exercise a presidency from outside of the circle rather than from right in the middle of it.” Keeping the UK close to the new US Government under Biden may be key to squaring that circle and achieving a new, ambitious global deal in Glasgow next year.

The history of COP negotiations, however, is a tale of triumphs – like Paris – and dashed hopes. Back in 2009, with a newly elected progressive US President in Barack Obama, the climate movement was supremely optimistic that a far-reaching agreement would be achieved in Copenhagen. There were many reasons why that failed to materialise, not least the US Administration’s domestic focus at the time on securing Obamacare. But another factor that is often pointed to, is the Danish presidency of the COP that year and its lack of diplomatic agility to work its way through the detail of the negotiations in order to broker a comprehensive agreement. With Boris Johnson in charge of next year’s COP, what could possibly go wrong?