Moving forward with decisive climate change initiatives is increasingly the role of China, not the United States. Russia, for now, is taking a backseat role.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers an address at the COP22 climate change conference in Marrakech, Nov. 16. Photo: AP
The 2015 Paris Climate Pact to limit the rise in future temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) was a landmark accomplishment. But, one year later, it’s clear that the Paris climate change agreement left many questions unanswered.
How to make the climate pact commitments verifiable? How to allocate the considerable costs of the measures designed to fight and reverse climate change? How to address the fundamental injustice of the fact that Western countries became rich by emitting greenhouse gases, but the cost of the warming climate is borne by the poor nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia?
The twenty-second climate change summit (COP22) that took place from Nov. 7 to Nov. 18 in Marrakesh, Morocco was designed to address questions of implementation, the details of funding mechanisms and verification processes. In the months and days leading to the Morocco Summit, the sense of optimism prevailed.
After the G20 nations met for a summit in Hangzhou, China on Sept. 3-5, President Xi Jinping from China and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to ratify the Paris agreement and committed to setting the pace for a united global approach for “green development,” advanced smart technologies, and economic funding to reverse climate change.
The number of countries that approved the Paris agreement had been steadily increasing, and on Nov. 4, finally reached the required threshold approval of at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. With that threshold reached, the Paris agreement became legally binding.
The COP22 conference opened on Nov. 7. With the Obama administration supportive of climate change initiatives, the Americans’ active cooperation was taken for granted. But as the improbable news of the U.S. election results came up on the morning of Nov. 9, the delegates of 196 countries were suddenly faced with the reality of an American President-elect who promised to pull out from the Paris agreement and who had publicly stated in the past that “climate change is a hoax.
The COP22 ended with little impact, and it also was hardly reported by the American press.
The trouble with the U.S.
That the United States is a difficult climate change partner has been always known. Earlier this year, Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to phase out coal power plants, had been blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court until all litigation is over.
With U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on his way to the White House, many fear that the Paris pact would suffer the fate of the Kyoto protocol, which was enthusiastically embraced by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton and and former Vice President Al Gore, but was successfully sabotaged by the Republicans.
The United States is not the only climate change laggard. Several industrial nations are still missing from the list of those that have ratified the agreement: the Netherlands, Switzerland and Russia.
As a good Russian proverb goes, a “holy place will never be empty.” As the U.S. vacated its leadership position, China quickly moved in. Beijing’s presence in Marrakesh was dominant, and the Chinese were open about their ambitions to use the climate change cause to raise China’s global political and economic profiles.
China, which is currently in its thirteenth Five-Year Plan adopted in March 2016, has taken political, economic and technological actions to reverse this problem due to the overgrowth of their nation and its regions. The new Five Year Plan places controls on building and development as well as infrastructure, which will reduce the use of fossil fuels by 2030.
The optimistic view is that the climate change movement had gotten enough momentum that it will move forward, with or without the United States. If that is not enough, perhaps the rest of the world could force America to comply. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, proposed in Marrakesh that Europe may impose import duties on U.S. goods to create an economic incentive to embrace the global carbon-free future.
The world putting sanctions on the United States sounds like a fresh approach. But is this realistic? The U.S. occupies a key position, because of its wealth, the size of its economy, and its own greenhouse gas footprint. Replacing the U.S. will be hard.
Some pessimistic voices paint a climate change picture that is rather dire. According to American philosopher and political critic Noam Chomsky, now a professor at MIT, who recently commented on the sharply increased risks of catastrophic climate change in a speech at the Democracy Now! conference in New York City, the failure to make progress towards climate change, unless quickly corrected, is nothing less than humanity’s drift towards self-destruction.
In fact, the potential consequences are so dire, that Professor Chomsky considered the failed Marrakesh summit a more important event than the presidential election that put Trump into the White House.
Here is one scenario that sounds not entirely implausible: Within a few years, rising sea levels will force tens of millions of people in Bangladesh to migrate north, creating a migrant crisis of such proportion that the current migrant crisis will seem just a footnote.
Melting glaciers in the Arctic and the Himalayas will not only raise sea levels, but also will exacerbate the problems with drinking water in both India and Pakistan. Competition for a precious resource could cause them go into an all-out war, and since both have nuclear weapons, a nuclear war would ensue.
This may sound like a highly unlikely, almost unthinkable, outcome. But we seem to be living at a time when the unthinkable tends to happen.
Trump’s appointments of many climate change deniers, especially Scott Pruitt (the Attorney General of Oklahoma) to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is a strong signal on how the U.S. will move backward on stopping climate change. Since Republicans control both the House and the Senate, Trump could enact laws to match his rhetoric.
Or perhaps not just yet
What does it mean for other countries that signed the Paris climate pact, including Russia? Russia’s global importance needs not to be overstated. The climate change drama for the next four (or eight years) of the Trump presidency will surely play out in Washington, D.C. and, to an even larger extent, in Beijing.
But Russia does play an important regional role as the center of the Eurasian Economic Union that includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, an area of 180 million people that is effectively one large economic region. It is important to keep Russia from reneging on its climate commitments.
Fortunately, Russia’s role has been rather progressive. Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the active supporters for the Paris agreement. The Russian central government needs Russia to migrate away from fossil fuels for many reasons, including both economic development and foreign policy prestige. But just like in America, the implementation realities are rather complex.
Still, Russia wants to be perceived as a “responsible” and transparent global power. Ratification is likely to happen, but probably not this year as originally expected.
What do companies and individuals who care about climate change need to do in the meantime? The politics are so dysfunctional, that the best reaction is to ignore it, and let commercial interests take over.
Alternative green energy is already a big business around the world as green industrial development becomes a global reality. In many countries, numerous solar and wind projects are currently under development.
Russia is not an exception. For example, Russia has authorized over 1 GW of solar projects and implemented a sensible framework that allows investors to achieve a fixed return on capital of between 12 percent and 14 percent per annum over the course of fifteen years.
This progressive opportunity has attracted interest from some of Russia’s leading industrial groups. Russia’s alternative green energy industry faces plenty of challenges, including limited access to capital because of the economic sanctions. But at least, the country is moving in the right direction.
It is certain that temperatures are rising around the globe. But it is equally certain that the cost of alternative green energy is coming down. Grid parity has already been achieved in several countries, including Germany, Argentina, Chile and southern states in the United States. As costs continue to come down, alternative green energy will become an increasingly attractive investment proposition. The Marrakesh summit was a flop, but the fight is not over. COP23 is already scheduled to take place in Germany next year.
In the meantime, countries where the government has implemented incentives for alternative green energy are left with the very practical problems of getting these green projects funded and completed, one wind and solar installation at a time. The climate change-denying rhetoric coming out of Trump Tower in Manhattan (and soon, the White House in Washington) needs to change, and hopefully will change, sooner rather than later.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.