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The World Will Go Forward On Climate Action, With Or Without Trump

Some encouraging final takeaways from COP22 in Marrakech

For a moment, it seemed as if another U.S. presidential election was going to blow up another international climate deal. After American voters delivered Donald Trump a surprising Electoral College victory, many feared that the Paris Agreement that went into force just days earlier would suffer the same fate as the Kyoto Protocol. That first landmark global climate treaty notoriously lost its way when President George W. Bush pulled out of the deal shortly after taking office.

As the election results came in during the first week of the U.N. climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, it became clear that the next leader of the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter would be a guy who once called climate change a hoax created by the Chinese and said on the campaign trail that he’d tear up the Paris Agreement.

But rather than implode, the talks took on a surprising sense of resolve.

Immediately after Trump’s victory, high-level foreign ministers from China to Russia to Saudi Arabia to the European Union all recommitted to the global pact. “We must honor commitments and consolidate mutual trust," said China's climate envoy Xie Zhenhua.

Speaking more directly to Trump, French President Francois Hollande said, "The United States, the largest economic power in the world, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, must respect the commitments it has undertaken.”

Delegate after delegate, leader after leader, declared the transition to a low carbon economy “irreversible,” a phrase that became something of a rallying cry for the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP22).

Indeed, there was a palpable sense in Marrakech that if Trump were to isolate on climate, then Americans would be the big losers. “The Paris Agreement cannot be stopped as the global energy transition cannot be stopped,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, the Spanish head of the European Commission. “The world is forging ahead, and the smart money is on clean energy. Who would be against this unstoppable global trend? Who would like to be left behind?”

Keeping a positive attitude might have been victory enough, considering the circumstances, but this year’s summit had been hyped as a “COP of action.” So what did they actually get done?

The Official Business

Last year in Paris, nations had a hard deadline to deliver on a unanimous, global deal. This year, there was no such pressure. Still, most years the country that hosts the COP likes to make sure that there’s some official text with a city’s name on it. It’s a branding thing. For instance, the phrase “Marrakech Accords” might already sit somewhere in the recesses of your mind, maybe with a vague sense of goodwill attached to them. Those were adopted and signed back at COP7 in 2001. This year we got the Marrakech Action Proclamation; the tight, one-page document “affirms commitments to the full implementation” of the Paris Agreement—a slightly more than symbolic gesture in post-Trump diplomacy—and also outlines how the aggregate pledges made by countries under the deal would not deliver on the agreed target to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

“We call for urgently raising ambition and strengthening cooperation amongst ourselves to close the gap between current emissions trajectories and the pathway needed to meet the long-term temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.”

In other words, nations recognize that their promises need to actually add up to the goals they’ve set.

Poor Nations Lead The Way

The Marrakech meetings also produced a couple of meaningful announcements from some influential players in the talks.

Some agreements and decisions—like the Marrakech Action Proclamation—occur within the official framework of the U.N. climate talks. Others happen under the umbrella of the U.N. body, but aren’t formal consensus decisions.

Last week, 22 countries—including the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Germany—together released long term plans for how to deeply cut their greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury. Such deep decarbonization plans are encouraged under the Paris Agreement, but not mandated. With the release of these midcentury strategies, nations, and even states and cities, encourage others to develop and publish respective plans.

“The 2050 pathways have a critical role to play in the transition, because while having a good plan is never a sufficient condition for success, not having one is always a recipe for failure,” said Laurence Tubiana, French ambassador for climate negotiation.

Canada’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna paraphrased hockey legend Wayne Gretzky in describing the goal of the 2050 pathways: “You skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where the puck has been.”

The sturdy 111-page U.S. plan calls for a three-prong approach to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050: to transform energy systems to low-carbon sources; to sequester more carbon through reforestation and soils and other land use patterns; and to reduce non-carbon dioxide GHG emissions, such as methane.

It’s a comprehensive, relatively ambitious plan with a lot of good ideas. It was also put to shame by the announcement made a day after it’s release by a number of the world’s poorest countries.

On Friday, a group of 47 nations most imperiled by rising seas and soaring temperatures agreed unanimously to transition to 100 percent renewable energy “no later than 2030-2050.” The Marrakech Communique and Vision texts released by the group known as the Climate Vulnerable Forum also included extensive plans for how to report on progress.

Of the CVF’s pledges, Edgar Gutiérrez, Costa Rica’s environment minister, said, “We don’t know what countries are still waiting for to move towards net carbon neutrality and 100 percent renewable energy. All parties should start the transition, otherwise we will all suffer.”

Gemedo Dalle, environment minister of Ethiopia, said, “Without stronger climate action, we might not survive, and this is not an option.”

The Market Has Spoken

President-elect Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to do right by American businesses. Well, American businesses spoke up during COP22 and made the strong case for sticking to the Paris Agreement and aggressively pursuing a low-carbon future.

Last Wednesday, a group of more than 360 companies, including a dozen Fortune 500 companies and 72 with annual revenues exceeding $100 million, sent an open letter to the president-elect, calling on “elected U.S. leaders to strongly support … continued U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement.”

Some high profile companies like DuPont, General Mills, HP, Hilton, Intel, Kellogg, Nike, Staples, and Tiffany (which might get Melania’s attention), signed the letter that stated directly, “We want the U.S. economy to be energy-efficient and powered by low-carbon energy. … Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk.”

Kevin Rabinovitch, the global sustainability director at Mars, said in Marrakech that Trump’s election would not at all impact his company’s internal emissions-reduction plans. Of Mars, which is ranked by Forbes as the sixth largest privately held company in the United States, Rabinovitch said:

“We are a food business, we have supply chains all over the world. At the base of every supply chain is a farm. Those farms are exposed to the climate. The raw materials we buy are affected by climate change…

If we’re the only ones that take action, that doesn’t address the risks we face, so we need other companies and other governments too…

The Paris Agreement, for America, is good business.”

On top of these 360 companies, another 200 signed a separate pledge last week to set “science based” targets for the internal emissions reductions. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Dell, General Mills, Kellogg, NRG Energy, and Proctor & Gamble were among those to establish operational emissions targets consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping temperatures well below the 2 degree Celsius warming threshold.

Until recently, it was thought that reducing greenhouse gas emissions was a business liability—that it created a competitive disadvantage—and that’s clearly the thinking that guide’s Trump’s public comments about the Paris Agreement and U.S. emissions pledges.

However, some data released last week by the Global Carbon Project showed that global greenhouse gas emissions stayed flat for a third straight year, while the world economy kept growing. This signals a monumental and historic shift: economic growth has effectively decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions.

In the United States alone, this decoupling is clearly evident:

This new economic and business reality has been anticipated by the most forward-looking businesses, which are positioned to thrive in a carbon-constrained world. Countries who recognize this reality will, likewise, prosper, and those who don’t will be left behind. “Ultimately, clean energy is expected to be a multi-trillion dollar market—the largest market the world has ever known,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in his final address to the U.N. climate community as America’s top diplomat. “And no nation will do well if it sits on the sidelines, handicapping it’s own businesses.”

Photo: A “family photo” outside the COP22 venue, emphasizing that parties are committed to the Paris Agreement. Credit: UNFCCC on Flickr.

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