Global Outlook: Consolidation and Backsliding

During the past two years the world has taken important steps forward in crafting new climate agreements: The Paris Agreement was negotiated and entered into force, the amendment to the Montreal Protocol to reduce the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) was agreed upon, and the ICAO agreed an offsetting scheme to compensate for future emissions growth from aviation. 

By Steffen Kallbekken, CICERO
 
These developments were possible due to a substantial political momentum. An important example of this momentum is that more countries ratified the Paris Agreement more rapidly than anyone had anticipated, with the result that the agreement entered into force 4 November 2016, just days before COP22 opened in Marrakech. Furthermore, global emissions did not grow for the third consecutive year, and renewable energy investments keep reaching new highs across the globe. 
 
After this two-year long rush towards new milestone agreements, 2017 promises to be a year of implementation and consolidation, and possibly backsliding.  

The path to implementation of the Paris Agreement will continue with COP23, to be hosted by Fiji, but organized in Bonn, Germany, in November. The talks in Marrakech agreed to little except procedural decisions and to make all major decisions on the Paris Agreement “rule book” in 2018. Few major decisions are therefore expected this year, and the main task is to ensure sufficient progress to be able to make decision at COP24 in Poland in 2018. All eyes will instead be on political developments.  
 
The US election of a climate-denier as President who has said he will “cancel” the Paris Agreement threatens the positive momentum that has been built over the past few years. This is all the more concerning because current national contributions to the Paris Agreement are not sufficiently ambitious, and rely on a successful ramping-up of contributions to succeed.  
 
The Paris Agreement can perhaps best be described as a platform from which to launch more ambitious policies and measures nationally, locally, and regionally, across cities and companies. The current national contributions to reduce emissions are too weak to conclude decisively that the Paris Agreement will help us avoid dangerous interference with the climate system. The Agreement probably ensures that we can avoid 4°C of warming, but it is no guarantee that we can limit warming to well below 2°C.  
 
For the Paris Agreement to deliver, pressure will be on countries to ramp-up ambition over time in a 5-year cycle of nationally determined contributions. Such a ramping-up depends on trust among countries, and the leadership of actors such as the US, China and the EU. Whether it’s possible to maintain the momentum and the pressure to ramp-up climate policy ambition is a key question for 2017.  
 
It is still too early to say what the impact of the Trump administration will be on international climate policy, but we can expect this impact to occur through three main pathways. 
 
First, the Trump administration is likely to weaken existing US climate and energy policies, and will probably not actively pursue policies that enables the US to reach its Paris Agreement target of reducing emissions by 26-28% by 2025 from 2005-levels. US emissions might, however, continue to decline as current market prices favor (shale) gas over coal, and as several regulations will continue to have an effect (such as fuel economy standards). 
 
Second, other countries might respond negatively to US actions, whether that is to fail to comply with the Paris Agreement, withdrawing from the agreement, or from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is probably more important with respect to new contributions (to be announced in 2020) than for existing ones. It is worth remembering what happened George Bush Jr. withdrew the US signature to the Kyoto Protocol. There was a diplomatic outcry, but no other countries withdrew from the Protocol or weakened their policies. However, in the longer run the impact was probably quite dramatic. Neither Russia, Japan, Canada, Australia or New Zealand signed up for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2013-2020). 
 
Third, removing US diplomatic pressure might leave other countries free to pursue less constructive strategies at the climate negotiations. US pressure was vital at COP21 in ensuring that countries such as Saudi Arabia and India accepted the draft Paris Agreement.  
 
In addition to the uncertainty concerning which climate and energy policies the Trump administration will pursue, the other key uncertainty is how other key countries will respond. China and the EU, for instance, have already announced that they will stick to their climate targets regardless of what the US does. These are credible announcements, perhaps in particular for China which has strong domestic incentives to pursue more active climate policies (reducing local air pollution in particular). But will the EU be able to maintain its leadership role in the face of internal political challenges, including Brexit? 
 
Climate skepticism was not a prominent topic, but it did feature in both the Trump campaign  
and in the Brexit campaign. With populist parties promoting climate-denialist views, or skepticism to existing climate policies, likely to play a major role in elections in Germany, France, Netherlands and the Czech Republic this year, and with the expectation that the US will be less likely to curtail laggards such as Saudi Arabia in climate negotiations, is there a risk that two years of substantial climate policy progress will be followed by a year of policy backsliding in 2017?