Category Archives: Climate Change

IMO Member Countries adopt pathway to reduce shipping carbon footprint

Alicia Nicholls

Member countries of the United Nations specialised agency charged with regulating the shipping industry, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), adopted the first greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction framework for the shipping industry. This decision came at the 72nd session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) held in London from April 9-13.

The Initial Strategy adopted by IMO member countries has set a target of halving greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from ships by 2050 vis-a-vis emissions levels in 2008. This move brings the shipping industry closer in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed by over 190 countries in 2015, but to which the shipping industry (like the aviation industry) is not bound.

Some 80% of the volume of global trade is carried by ships. The phenomenon of mega-ships has seen a doubling in container ship capacity, and improvements in engine efficiency have increased the ability to travel longer distances in shorter time. However, the industry is estimated to account for 2-3% of global GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide and sulphur. A study entitled “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Global Shipping: 2013-2015” found that CO2 and other emissions from ships were increasing, despite increases in efficiency. Aside from the very real climate impact, emissions  from ships have public health risks for persons who live on or near the coast.

So what was decided?

Under the Initial Strategy, IMO States agreed:

  • To reduce total annual GHG emissions from international shipping by at least 50% compared to 2008
  • The peak and decline of GHG shipping emissions completely by the end of the century
  • To reduce the carbon intensity of ships through implementation of further phases of the energy efficiency design index for new ships
  • A working group will develop a program of follow-up actions to the Initial Strategy, and will consider ways to reduce shipping GHG emissions in order to advise the committee and will report at the next session of the MEPC in October 2018
  • The Initial Strategy is to be revised by 2023.

As noted by the IMO, achievement of these targets will require continued innovations in shipping design and technology to maximise energy efficiency and decarbonisation through use of alternative and renewable energy sources.

Agreement on the Initial Strategy did not come easy and reflects a compromise. Small Island Developing States, China and the European Union for example, had advocated for a more ambitious emissions reduction target of at least 70%, which scientists argue would put the sector more on track to meeting the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature increases to well-below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  Others like the US, Saudi Arabia and Brazil had argued for lower targets.

Some environmental groups have posited that the compromise target of 50% is not enough to bring shipping emissions in line with the target set out by the Paris Agreement.

Nonetheless, the Initial Strategy is an important milestone as, after years of delay, it represents the first pathway forward for reducing the shipping industry’s carbon footprint. In March this year, a  mandatory data collection system for fuel oil consumption of ships also came into force.

The full IMO press release may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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COP23: Five Negotiation Priorities for Small Island Developing States (SIDS)

Alicia Nicholls

In about a week’s time, delegates from over 190 countries will convene in Bonn, Germany for the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). During this round of climate negotiations, which will last from November 6-17th, the parties will continue work on implementation guidelines for the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed at COP21 in December 2015.

Despite United States’ President Donald Trump’s statement in June that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, there is some cause for optimism that this year’s COP negotiations will bear fruit. For the first time, a small island developing state (SIDS), the Republic of Fiji, has assumed the presidency of COP and brings to this task first-hand experience from the front lines of the climate change battle.

Secondly, recent natural disasters worldwide have brought increased international attention to the devastating effects of climate change and the need for urgent action on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. This point was well-made by President of Fiji, Mr. Frank Bainimarama, who stated at a Pre-COP Ministerial Meeting held on October 17 in Fiji that:

“We can no longer ignore this crisis. Whether it is fires in California, Portugal and Spain. Flooding in Nigeria, India and Bangladesh. The dramatic Arctic melt. Ice breaking off the continent of Antarctica. The recent hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean and the southern United States. Or the hurricane that has just struck Ireland and Scotland – the tenth hurricane of the Atlantic season this year. It’s hard to find any part of the world that is unaffected by these events.”

Thirdly, except for the US, political will among the world’s most powerful nations has coalesced on the side of climate action. The 19 other G20 countries reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to the Paris Agreement, calling it “irreversible” in their Summit Declaration following the Hamburg meeting in July.

Below are five key likely priorities for SIDS as they go into the negotiations:

  1. Scaling up Climate Finance to SIDS

At COP15 in 2009, developed countries committed to jointly mobilise USD 100 billion annually by 2020 to meet the mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries. According to an OECD study, climate-related concessional finance has increased in both absolute terms and as a percentage of total concessional development finance, however annual commitments for 2014 were still 20% of the USD100 billion goal.

SIDS often find it difficult to attract private financial inflows for development purposes due to their small size and economies, and current financing levels do not meet their current needs. Moreover, current graduation criteria have made some middle and upper income SIDS, like those in the Caribbean, ineligible for certain types of concessional financing.

Pledged contributions, whether to the Green Climate Fund or otherwise, also do not necessarily always lead to timely disbursement, and there is the need for guidelines and protocols for incorporating the Adaptation Fund established at COP7 into the Paris Agreement’s framework.

Finding innovative and effective ways to attract and increase financial flows, including from both public and private and bilateral and multilateral sources, will be key. For example, Fiji became the first developing country to issue a sovereign green bond, with technical support from the World Bank, to support the country’s mitigation and adaptation efforts.

  1. Loss and damage

Loss and damage was one of the most contentious topics in the negotiations leading up to the Paris Agreement and was strongly lobbied for by SIDS and LDCs as they are the least culpable but most vulnerable to the harshest impacts of climate change. The concept recognises that there is some irreversible damage which cannot be avoided through mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The Paris Agreement has recognised the concept of ‘loss and damage’ as a distinct concept of climate action and has made the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage permanent. It, however, does not deal with liability or compensation, something which developed countries were adamant they did not wish to be included. The softer language used in Article 8, which, inter alia, itemises areas for cooperation and facilitation, is reflective of these developed country concerns.

The costliness of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season is an important background against which SIDS should call for greater discussion on concretely addressing loss and damage, including the successful launch of the Clearing House for Risk Transfer which is slated to take place at COP23.

  1. Adaptation and Mitigation

Developed countries’ continued and increased support will be necessary to assist SIDS in implementing national climate action plans, policies and projects in order to build climate resilience. This support for adaptation and mitigation includes not just financial support, but technology transfer and capacity building and technical assistance.

Certain groups within societies are particularly vulnerable to climate change, including women and children, the disabled and indigenous and rural communities. As such, the COP23 negotiations will involve operationalizing the Gender Action Plan and the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platforms.

  1. More ambitious NDCs

Some 163 parties have already submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions which outline their emission reduction targets toward meeting the goal set out in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement of keeping average global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius. These NDCs may be found at the interim NDC registry.

However, the May 2016 synthesis report on the aggregate effect of INDCs showed that a higher level of ambition will be needed in order to reach the goal in Article 2.

SIDS will want all parties to communicate to more ambitious NDCs after 2018 in order to meet the temperature goals in the Agreement and in keeping with the Article 4(3) commitment of communicating successively progressive NDCs.

  1. Preparations for Facilitative Dialogue 2018

The Facilitative Dialogue which will take place in 2018 will be the first initial opportunity under the Paris Agreement to take stock of parties’ collective progress in a transparent manner towards meeting the Agreement’s long-term goal and inform the preparation of NDCs. It will be a precursor to the Global Stock Take, the first of which will take place in 2023 and will occur every five years thereafter.

The Facilitative Dialogue 2018 will be launched at COP23 and parties will need to organise and decide on the procedures, events and expected outcomes in time for its convening. The President of Fiji, who must be commended on his country’s excellent work on preparations for COP23 to date, has indicated that these talks will approached on the principle of ‘talanoa’, a Pacific concept which values inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue.

A copy of the negotiating agenda for COP23 (current as at this date) may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

 

Caribbean leaders place spotlight on climate change at UNGA

“To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived” – The Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica

Alicia Nicholls

These powerful words uttered by Prime Minister of Dominica, The Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit were perhaps the most memorable from the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) seventy-second session. It was against the tragic backdrop of the devastation inflicted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria on several Caribbean islands that successive Caribbean leaders made their addresses during the UNGA general debate, highlighting the urgency of the need to address climate change in a meaningful way.

There were many moving addresses, but the most impactful  was the address by Mr Skerrit, whose country was severely battered by the Category 5 power of Hurricane Maria just days before. Reiterating that he was “coming from the front line of the war on climate change”, Mr. Skerrit reminded participants of the horror which Tropical Storm Erika had inflicted on the island back in 2015 and the tragedy currently unfolding due to Hurricane Maria where the confirmed death toll is 27 and several other persons remain missing.

In the space of a couple of hours, Dominica’s iconic mountains, once resplendent in coats of green and through which flowed clear rivers, had turned brown with mud and rubble. Some 95% of homes have reportedly lost their roofs in some places. Every one of the Nature Isle’s 70,000 inhabitants has been affected in some way.

Proclaiming that “Eden is broken”, he declared that Dominica was faced with “an international humanitarian emergency”. A fortnight before Maria hit Dominica, Barbuda, the smaller of the two main islands of the country of Antigua & Barbuda, was hit by Category 5 Hurricane Irma, leading to a complete evacuation of the entire island after the crisis. Hurricane Irma also did not spare Cuba or the island of St. Martin, split between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of France.

But besides the human and infrastructural losses, the economic toll will be equally enduring for those countries affected. A recent report estimates that Hurricane Irma caused $45 billion in damage in the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion in Puerto Rico.   With Maria, this toll will be expected to rise. A rapid damage and assessment had found that Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 had inflicted loss and damage on Dominica of US$483 million, equivalent to 90% of the island’s GDP. Hurricane Maria was much worse.

While climate change is not the cause of hurricanes, warmer waters in the Atlantic is believed by scientists to be the cause of stronger, more powerful hurricanes during this hurricane season. Hurricane Irma and Maria both rapidly developed into Category 5 hurricanes and the back to back pummeling of several Caribbean islands by two Category 5 hurricanes in such a short space of time is certainly not an everyday occurence, but one which may become a more frequent reality as global temperatures increase.

It is these realities which led Caribbean countries and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to be at the forefront of climate change negotiations which eventually led to the historic Paris Agreement being signed in December, 2015. It is why the decision by US President Donald Trump to declare that the US, the world’s largest polluter, would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement was extremely unfortunate.

As Hurricane Harvey and Irma potently showed in the US states of Texas and Florida, wealthy nations like the US are not immune to the more deadly effects of climate change. However, Caribbean countries, like all SIDS, are poorly equipped, both geographically and economically, to confront these disasters. Their fragile economies are dependent on industries which are among the first economic victims of storm devastation, tourism being the clearest example.

Moreover, their generally high  GDP per capita and “middle income” designation makes most concessionary loans and certain types of development aid beyond their reach due to outdated notions that GDP per capita is a good measure of wealth for countries. This point was raised in the address by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Barbados, Senator the Honourable Maxine McClean. Barbados was spared the devastation of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria and has been among the forefront of relief efforts in Dominica.

As was eloquently put in a recent World Bank blog, hurricanes can seriously turn back the developmental clock. This is certainly the case with Dominica which was still in many ways recovering from Tropical Storm Erika and will face a much longer recovery following Hurricane Maria. It is also the case with the US territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands which are also facing tremendous human suffering after being pounded by both Irma and Maria. Puerto Rico’s economy was already fragile due to the huge debt crisis being faced and is now faced with many places without drinking water or electricity.

Platitudes and best endeavour promises do little to allay the reality that there is little time left to reverse the damage which has been done and reverse course towards more severe temperature increases. The Paris Agreement was an important step but there needs to be stronger commitment, ambition and meaningful action by all nations, especially those which are the most responsible for atmospheric pollution, to take steps to meet and go beyond the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets they set for themselves.

There also needs to be greater support for SIDS which bear a disproportionate brunt of the consequences. The issue of climate finance was raised by Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua & Barbuda, who mentioned debt swaps as a possible option, and the need for greater finance for building resilience, as well as reminded participants of the economic vulnerability of countries which were faced with high debt, large trade deficits and small, undeveloped financial markets.

As Prime Minister of Dominica, Mr. Skerrit rightly stated, “we need action and we need it now”.

Mr. Skerrit’s full speech may be viewed here.

The CTLD Blog extends our heartfelt sympathy to all our Caribbean brothers and sisters affected by the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma and Maria.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

 

New Trump Executive Order Reverses Obama-Era Climate Change Policies

Alicia Nicholls

Less than one hundred days into his presidency, President Donald Trump has started a major rollback of Obama-era climate policies. Surrounded by an ensemble of coal miners, the US President today signed his Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.  Touted as necessary to liberalise energy production, promote economic growth and job creation, the Trump Executive Order takes aim at several executive actions implemented by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, as part of the US’ then response to the global climate change challenge.

For fellow pro-environmentalists today’s executive order is a blow to the global climate change fight and a sad confirmation of the policy change which Trump had promised. Why? Firstly, the US is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (16% according to 2015 figures), which means US action or inaction on climate change has a non-negligible impact on global efforts to reverse course before it is too late. Secondly, environmental regulatory rollback by the US could provoke a domino effect on other large emitters who may decide to rollback their own so-called ‘job killing’ environmental regulations in order to be competitive. Thirdly, US climate change inaction is not just a blow for small island developing States which are the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, but it further endangers those parts of the US which are feeling the ravages of climate change, such as sea level rise and more powerful storms.

The name  of the executive order is a misnomer as it does nothing to promote energy independence. Instead, it mandates, inter alia, departments and agencies to immediately review, suspend, revise or rescind existing regulations that “potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources”. It rescinds Certain Energy and Climate-Related Presidential and Regulatory Actions, including a 2013 executive order urging the federal government to prepare for the impact of climate change and a 2013 presidential memorandum on Carbon Sector Carbon Pollution Standards. It also lifts moratoria on Federal land coal leasing activities. His Head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, a known climate sceptic, reportedly hailed the regulatory rollback as “pro-jobs and pro-environment”.

This 360 degree reversal of US Climate Change policy comes days after President Trump’s proposed Budget which slashed budgetary funding for the EPA by 31%, but saw an increase in military spending.

Though denounced by environmentalists, the executive order has been praised by the US Coal Industry. Mr. Trump constantly blamed President Obama’s Clean Power Plan for the loss of coal mining jobs. However, though it is true that coal mining jobs have been on the decline in the US, most have been lost to automation as well as the shift to cleaner energy sources as opposed to clean energy regulations. Therefore, even some coal industry leaders, who have denounced climate action, have noted that coal jobs may not be coming back, regulatory rollback or not.

Moreover, the equation of climate change regulation with job losses is a false comparison as it ignores the growth not just in renewable energy industries and the green economy, but also specifically of green jobs and green goods and services.

President Trump is currently the only major world leader to deny the anthropogenic origin of climate change, and while he has often vacillated in his views on other subjects, on climate change he has been a consistent denier. Almost as a warning salvo that it would not be business as usual,  the Whitehouse.gov site had been scrubbed of any information relating to climate change immediately after President Trump’s inauguration.

Mr. Trump was also a fierce critic of the Paris Climate Agreement which had been concluded and signed by over 190 countries at the UNFCCC’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21). Parties to the Agreement, which the US had ratified under President Obama via executive action, pledged, inter alia, to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

In the absence of being able to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (which the US cannot do until 4 years after ratifying), President Trump has, as expected, chosen to ignore and reverse emission reduction commitments made by his predecessor. It is also expected that under President Trump the US will renege on the pledge made by developed countries to mobilise $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020 to assist developing countries with their climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Paris Climate Change Agreement Enters into Force: What next?

Alicia Nicholls

“Humanity will look back on November 4, 2016, as the day that countries of the world shut the door on inevitable climate disaster and set off with determination towards a sustainable future.” Joint Statement by Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary and Salaheddine Mezouar, President of COP22 and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Kingdom of Morocco

It is with these poignant words that United Nations (UN) Climate Chief, Patricia Espinosa, and President of COP22 and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Kingdom of Morroco,  Salaheddine Mezouar, heralded the entry into force of the Paris Agreement just shy of twelve months after it was agreed to by nearly 200 parties at the UNFCCC’s Twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP-21) in Paris, December 2015. November 4 was indeed a momentous day for the global community and planet Earth and the Agreement’s early entry into force signals countries’ strong stated commitment to global climate action. However, the hard work now begins.

Background

The historic Paris Agreement sets the overarching framework for global climate action. It is the culmination of years of hard-fought negotiations and compromise. Inter alia, countries around the world have committed themselves to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5  degrees Celsius.”

This more ambitious latter threshold of “1.5 degrees Celsius” was strongly advocated for by Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which, despite their negligible contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, are the most vulnerable to the adverse and deadly effects of climate change. This harsh reality was reiterated in October 2016 when Haiti was struck by Hurricane Matthew, which took 1,000 innocent lives and has left 800,000 persons without food. The Bahamas, parts of Cuba and also of the southeastern United States also felt some of Matthew’s fury. Outside of more devastating weather events and changing weather patterns, some of the other effects of climate change include coral bleaching, sea level rise and beach erosion, which have implications for fisheries, tourism and agriculture, industries upon which many small states’ economies and livelihoods depend.

This universally accepted climate change accord was signed by over 190 parties on Earth Day (April 1, 2016). However, the Agreement could have only entered into force once at least 55 countries accounting for at least an estimated 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions had ratified the Agreement. This threshold was reached on October 5, 2016 and the Agreement entered into force 30 days later on November 4, 2016. According to UNFCCC, ninety-seven (97) countries accounting for an estimated two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified. Most major  greenhouse gas emitting parties, including the US, China, the European Union and India, have ratified the Agreement.

It’s Show time!

It is one thing to sign off on the dotted line. It is another thing to actually implement the Agreement. In regards to the fight against climate change, we are quickly reaching the point of no return. Here are some not so fun stats:

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2 emission levels, have continued to rise. The World Meterological Organisation (WMO) reported that globally average CO2 levels reached 400 parts per million for the first time in 2015 and in 2016 again due to El Nino.
  • 2015 was the hottest year on record, surpassed only by the first six-months of 2016.
  • According to NASA, global  surface temperatures continue to rise, while “[f]ive of the first six months of 2016 also set records for the smallest respective monthly Arctic sea ice extent since consistent satellite records began in 1979”.

As United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon is reported to have said, “[w]e remain in a race against time”.

Even more concerning is that current emissions reduction targets pledged  by counties in their Nationally Determined Contributions are not enough to maintain the temperature increase to the ambitious levels set by the Paris Agreement. This was reconfirmed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its most recent Emissions Gap Report released the day before the Paris Agreement entered into force, which stated as follows:

Even if fully implemented, the unconditional Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are only consistent with staying below an increase in temperature of 3.2°C by 2100 and 3.0°C, if conditional Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are included (page xvii).

Another issue which is critical for developing countries’ efforts towards transitioning to low carbon and climate-resilient development is that of climate change financing. This is particularly important for SIDS, some of which are highly-indebted and with limited capacity to mobilise adequate domestic financing to fund their climate change adaptation and mitigation needs. Reiterating a promise made at Copenhagen and Cancun, developed countries have pledged in the Paris Agreement to jointly mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate change finance by 2020 from a variety of sources.

However, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have argued that the US$100 billion annual goal is not nearly enough. There may be some merit to this argument. For example, a 2013 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that “[i]nfrastructure investment required for sectors such as agriculture, transport, power and water under current growth projections stands at about US$ 5 trillion per year to 2020.”

There is, however, some encouraging news. The Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report 2016 reported that in 2015, investments in renewable energy reached nearly $286 billion, more than six times more than in 2004. Moreover, for the first time, more than half of all added power generation capacity came from renewables.

So what is next?

The modalities for the Agreement’s implementation will be top of mind when the latest round of UN Climate talks commence this week in Marrakech, Morocco. Three critical sets of UN climate meetings will be occurring:

  • The twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22)
  • The twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 12)
  • The first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 1).

The provisional agendas for each set of meetings are available on UNFCCC’s website. In regards to CMA1’s agenda, they are expected to “consider and adopt decisions on the modalities, procedures and guidelines on the implementation of the Paris Agreement” in addition to organisational and other matters.

The elephant in the room is the upcoming US presidential election. The US is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for an estimated 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Its future climate action will be determined by the results of Tuesday’s poll. President Obama has pledged to cut U.S. Climate Pollution by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

In complete contrast from current US climate policy, the Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Donald Trump, has famously called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and has gone as far as threatened to pull the US out of the Agreement. Although it would take about four years before the US can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, in the intervening time, Mr. Trump could still undo the US’ progress on climate change action by overturning the executive actions President Obama has implemented to fight climate change, cancelling funding for clean energy initiatives, and reducing and eliminating aid to developing countries for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Therefore, as I argued in a previous post, the future of US and global climate action, will depend significantly on the outcome of Tuesday’s poll.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Climate Change, the US Elections and Small Island Developing States’ Survival

Alicia Nicholls

We are the first generation to be able to end poverty, and the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our moral and historical responsibilities.” – Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations.

In a step that was both historic and symbolic, the Presidents of the United States (US) and China last week ratified the Paris Agreement ahead of the on-going G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. This single showing of solidarity by the world’s two largest industrialised powers was welcomed news for the small island developing states (SIDS) such as those in the Caribbean, Pacific and the Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS) states. Through the 44-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), SIDS  pushed not only for the conclusion of the Paris Agreement but insisted on the inclusion of language in the Agreement in which parties endeavored to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement).

SIDS are the least culpable but most physically and economically vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Rising sea levels have dislocated coastal communities and threaten the territorial integrity of the Pacific states of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Earlier this year, Cyclone Winston caused US1.4billion in damage, with the highest economic and human toll in Fiji, while Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 cost the Caribbean state of Dominica nearly half of its GDP. However, as the story of a remote Alaskan village which has voted to relocate from their ancestral home because of sea level rise shows, climate change is not a SIDS’ problem alone. It is a cross-cutting global issue which has implications not just for the global environment but for human health, security, sustainable development and economic growth.

So what does all of this have to do with the upcoming election for the 45th President of the US? Well, if one considers the wide disparity in climate change rhetoric and policy proposals between the two major candidates running for the Oval Office, it is pellucid that the election of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump is the difference between strong US support for reducing GHG emissions and leading the global fight against climate change on the one hand, and on the other, a reversal of the gains that have been hard fought for. In other words, the future of SIDS’ survival could depend on the outcome of the US election.

Current US climate change policy

Current US policy supports global climate change efforts. US President Obama’s three-pronged Climate Action Plan commits to cutting carbon pollution in America, preparing the US for the impacts of climate change, and critically for the Paris Agreement, leading international efforts to address Global Climate Change. This is a policy position which Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has pledged to honour should she be elected to office by the American people this November.

The Paris Agreement was concluded in December 2015 at the end of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21). Since the Agreement’s opening for signature in April 2016, over 180 states have signed. However, as of September 3, only 26 states so far (representing 39% of global emissions) have ratified it. The recent ratification by the US and China, which together account for about nearly 40% of GHG emissions, is a significant step towards the threshold needed for the Agreement to come into effect; ratification by at least 55 countries which contribute to 55% of global GHG emissions. According to a White House press release on the US-China Climate Change cooperation outcomes, the two countries “committed to working bilaterally and with other countries to advance the post-Paris negotiation process and to achieve successful outcomes this year in related multilateral fora”.

Climate Change Platforms of Candidates 

While a four-way race in theory, the candidates of the two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, still have a large lead ahead of the two other candidates (Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party). Perhaps never before has there been such wide disparity in the positions of two US presidential candidates on the issue of climate change. The democratic candidate, former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has vowed to “take on the threat of climate change and make America the world’s clean energy superpower”. Some of her major policy initiatives to this end are: launching a $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge, investing in clean energy production and infrastructure, cutting methane emissions across the economy and prioritising environmental and climate justice, inter alia.

This stands in stark contrast to the stated position of Republican candidate, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, who, inter alia, tweeted in November 2012 that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. He later said he was joking. Unfortunately, for the world, and especially for SIDS, climate change is no joking matter.

While Trump’s skepticism on the anthropogenic nature of climate change is not dissimilar to that of most Congressional Republicans, a Sierra Club report has rightly stated that “if elected, Trump would be the only world leader to deny the science of climate change.” He has also denounced the Paris Agreement as a bad deal for America, ascertaining it “gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use right here in America”, a claim soundly and poignantly rejected by the US special envoy for climate change (2009-2016) in a Washington Post op-ed. Mr. Trump first asserted he would renegotiate the Agreement and later stated that he would ‘cancel‘ the US’ participation in it. He has railed against environmental regulations. His proposals to reverse President Obama’s climate change initiatives, abolish the US Environmental Protection Agency, save the coal industry and continue subsidies to the oil and gas industry would jeopardise the US’s current emission reduction targets.

Implications for SIDS of US Climate Policy Change

Should a President Trump, if elected, implement his stated policies, not only will there be a 360 degree reversal of the US’ current commitment to meeting its emission-reduction targets, but an end to US cooperation or support for the global climate change agenda. If this happens, there will be little the world could do,besides raise universal condemnation. This is because one weakness of the Paris Agreement is that there is no binding enforcement mechanism in the agreement to force compliance of countries to the emissions limits they set for themselves. Already, there is skepticism that the current “nationally determined contributions” are not ambitious enough to conform with the Agreement’s goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement).

Secondly, should the US withdraw from the Agreement or renege on its commitments, some other high emitters may feel less of a moral imperative to follow through with their own commitments or may withdraw as well.

Thirdly, climate change finance is important for SIDS’ adaptation to, and mitigation of, the effects of climate change. Under Article 9 of the Paris Agreement developed country members are obligated to provide “financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention”.

Caribbean countries  and several other vulnerable states around the world have benefited significantly over the years from the US Department of International Aid (USAID)’s projects which aim to build countries’ resilience to climate change. Climate change was one of the Obama Administration’s priorities for DA funding with $310.3 million in funding requested for Global Climate Change in the FY2017 Budget Request. The future of USAID aid flows to developing countries for climate change adaptation is bleak if current US policy towards climate change action changes under a Trump administration.

What then for SIDS?

The aim of this article is NOT to be an endorsement of either of the two major candidates running for the upcoming US Presidential election, neither is it an attempt to influence the American people’s decision. The US election is a democratic choice for the American people and only they can decide which of the four candidates’ platform better serves their interests. What this article attempts to do is to discuss and show the wide policy differences which exist between the two candidates of the major parties on climate change, and argues that any negative change in current US climate change policy will have far-reaching implications for the global climate change fight.

There are a few nuggets of hope, however.  Because of Article 28 of the Paris Agreement, a President Trump would have to wait at least three years from the date the Agreement has entered into force in the US before he could notify his intention to withdraw the US from the Agreement and it would take another year for such withdrawal to come into effect.Any US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is unlikely to be a popular move among Americans. Recent US polling data show there is grassroots support for Climate Change. Action. This includes not just environmental lobbies but the ordinary man on the street. There would also be universal condemnation by other major countries.

SIDS may have a few allies in the fight within the US. Outside of federal action, some states, like Oregon, have quite robust climate change initiatives. Moreover, faced with pressure from more discerning and environmentally-aware consumers, more businesses and large corporations are forced to demonstrate their use of energy-friendly processes and products.

Despite this, however, besides lobbying and moral suasion by other countries, there is little SIDS  can realistically do to change US climate change policy should there be a reversal. The vote for US president is a decision only the US electorate can make. However, for SIDS it could be a matter of survival.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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