Calif. summit a success, but big tests still to come

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, September 18, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — The climate summit that ended here Friday had two aims: to give non-national actors their moment in the spotlight and to show the world that despite President Trump, the United States is still making strides.

And participants say it succeeded, drawing out dozens of new commitments from nonfederal entities while giving blue-state Democrats a platform to exhibit local- and state-level progress.

“I think if we look at this from the U.S. perspective, it’s a ‘We Are Still In’ summit,” said German Environment Minister Karsten Sach, referring to a coalition of 200 cities, states and businesses that have affirmed President Obama’s climate commitments.

But he said that the Global Climate Action Summit also played a practical role in highlighting the subnational governments that do the nitty-gritty work of building infrastructure, setting policy and reducing emissions.

“I think we need more subnational policy to implement the Paris Agreement,” he said. “It is important as regions are close to people and can very well combine climate policies with structural and social policies in a situation where the federal U.S. policies are not that forward-leaning.”

Companies, investors, cities and states used the gathering to offer up a panoply of ambitious commitments, including promises of aid and pledges to zero out their emissions. Philanthropies, including that of event co-chair and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, promised $4 billion in assistance over the next five years — twice the sum Trump is withholding from the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund.

A set of major global cities announced that they had already stopped growing their emissions, while companies like Mahindra Group, an India-based manufacturing conglomerate helmed by summit co-chairman Anand Mahindra, promised to make their own operations carbon neutral.

And then there was California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who announced plans to launch a satellite into space to monitor emissions (Climatewire, Sept. 14).

Some participants said having a convening moment to work toward helped encourage commitments.

Canada and the United Kingdom added 10 subnationals — including four U.S. states, Honolulu and Los Angeles — to their Powering Past Coal Alliance initiative to phase out coal use, “which we perhaps wouldn’t have if we hadn’t all gotten together,” said Nick Bridge, the United Kingdom’s special representative for climate.

Still, the true test of international cooperation on climate change continues to be the future of the Paris Agreement, which will come into sharper focus at December negotiations in Katowice, Poland, at next year’s U.N. secretary-general summit in New York City — when countries have been asked to debut their next round of nationally determined contributions — and at talks in late 2020 when those pledges will be final.

And while international negotiators and ministers said last week’s conference helped demonstrate that subnationals and the private sector would support increased national ambition, they acknowledged that announcements in California won’t make this year’s task of negotiating a Paris rulebook any easier.

“When it comes to the negotiations themselves, it’s almost a hermetically sealed world that is locked in at its own terms,” said Jo Tyndall, New Zealand’s climate ambassador. “So all of this stuff is fantastic, but it doesn’t in and of itself change the negotiating dynamics.”

Tyndall is facing a busy fall as co-chairwoman of the working group tasked with putting together the rulebook to guide implementation of the Paris Agreement. Negotiations earlier this month in Bangkok failed to make significant progress toward resolving political and technical disagreements.

She and the other leaders of the process are preparing to release a reflections note next month ahead of a preparatory meeting in Kraków, Poland, that will present some of the options parties have put forward for language on transparency, reporting, periodic review of collective actions and other elements.

But the document won’t propose solutions to ongoing areas of disagreement.

“We’ve made it clear that whatever we produce will not purport to be a clean text,” she said. “It will need to contain options, but what we would like to do is help parties narrow down or zoom in on the fundamental choices that will have to be made in Katowice at the end of the year.”

Tyndall and others were involved in bilateral and multilateral stakeholder meetings on the sidelines of last week’s conference dealing with the rulebook. More meetings are expected next week in New York City on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Fijian President Frank Bainimarama, the current president of the conference of parties, and incoming Polish COP President Michal Kurtyka are also reaching out to parties to resolve differences.

“The presidencies want it to be a well-oiled machine,” Tyndall said, adding that there are outstanding issues on all elements of the rulebook. But she expressed some optimism that the stalemate on display in Bangkok could be broken.

“I think what we will also find is if we can get a resolution to those core, core questions, then it’s kind of like a flow-on effect that will help unlock quite a number of others,” she said.

Miguel Arias Cañete, the European commissioner for climate and energy, said the beauty of last week was that it both showcased higher ambition and provided an opportunity for ministers to make progress ahead of the meetings later in the fall.

He acknowledged that talks stalled in Bangkok but said parties were looking forward to the text Tyndall and her colleagues will put out next month. He said he didn’t expect Katowice to be easy.

“COPs are always complicated, and there is lots of drama until the last day,” he said. “So I am used to lengthy night sessions, and there will be long nights in Katowice also, as there were long nights in Paris.”