BANGKOK ― Countries meeting in Bangkok last week hoped to leave the latest technical discussions on the Paris climate agreement with a clear idea on how to enforce the deal’s promises. But with the United States and other developed nations evading questions on key topics, delegates from the 178 participating nations were largely left to make difficult decisions on their own.
The meeting was meant to continue work on rules for how countries will report emission reductions and follow through on funding commitments under the 2015 Paris climate agreement and prepare for the upcoming conference in Katowice, Poland, this December. But the cooperative spirit of Paris was missing as committees tore through hundreds of pages of revisions in Bangkok.
Delegates from South Africa, China, Saudi Arabia and other middle-income countries held firm with the least-developed in trying to pressure the wealthiest countries into regularly giving financial support to the funding pools built into the agreement, and communicating their progress since Paris. Many accused richer countries of trying to rewrite Paris altogether.
“The Paris agreement must be implemented in its entirety and not in bits and pieces,” said Iranian delegate Majid Shafiepour Motlagh.
Negotiators struggled to define how to compare countries’ progress on their climate goals ― called “nationally-determined contributions” in United Nations parlance ― when every commitment differs. China led a push to hold developing and developed countries to different sets of standards, while the developed countries wanted a “streamlined” text that dropped more specific guidance.
The other big battle surrounded a mandate for developed countries to carry the financial burden of their development by funding some of the goals developing countries have set.
Though the Trump administration has said it will withdraw from the Paris agreement by 2020, U.S. delegates at the meeting aligned with other developed countries in attempting to delay requirements for reporting on goals and funding. The U.S. would not be obligated to pay into these funds after it formally exits, but developing countries and civil society groups grew frustrated as U.S. negotiators tried to loosen reporting requirements and delay discussion on how they would refill those funds.
The U.S. negotiators were some of the same people who had participated in forming the Paris agreement, and they seemed to be looking beyond the Trump administration, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“They’re putting their heads down and trying to do a professional job representing what they see as the long-term interests of the U.S.,” he said. That would make it possible for the next administration to rejoin the agreement, he added.
Jesse Bragg, director of the Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based watchdog group, saw a more sinister motive at work: an effort to dampen the responsibility developed countries hold for decades of unmitigated development.
The U.S. is the only country to signal a withdrawal from the Paris agreement, but others have been failing to live up to the goals it laid out. Earlier last week, Pacific Island countries accused Australia of refusing to address the threat of climate change and diluting the region’s declaration to fight global warming, while the new prime minister abandoned talks to revive its Paris emissions goals.
Meanwhile, China and other middle-income countries have undertaken bolder action on clean energy and mitigation, but don’t have the same mandate to contribute funding under the Paris formula.
Amjad Abdulla, the director general for the Maldives’ environment ministry and negotiator for small island nations, expressed frustration that the finance conversation has stalled, as rising sea levels grow more dire for island residents.
“Climate finance is not a handout,” he said in a statement. “It is a logical and fair response to this history and the best way for international community to raise the resources needed to address the climate emergency.”
The Paris agreement opens several avenues of funding to help developing countries meet their climate goals. But those budgets are dwindling for both adaptation to new climate realities and investment in clean energy and technology.
One source is the Adaptation Fund, which was created under the Kyoto Protocol and is now transitioning to the rules laid out in the Paris agreement. But the fund is already on shaky ground as its initial funding sources generated less money than expected.
To offset the financial shortcomings, developed countries have tried to involve private sector investments. But getting private investment in adaptation strategies or paying for environmental damage has been difficult, said Julia Grimm, a climate finance policy advisor for Germanwatch, a Bonn-based organization that advises on trade and policy between wealthy and developing countries.
“It’s important to ensure we don’t just spend a lot of money on infrastructure, because you can have a lot of impact with adaptation,” Grimm said.
Another source of funding, the Green Climate Fund, was not part of the negotiations in Bangkok but remains a concern. Its executive director resigned in July and remaining members have not been able to greenlight any of the 11 proposed low-emission development projects up for consideration. The fund has already dispersed 60 percent of its $10 billion, and its board is now looking to generate a new, larger round of funding.
The scope of help needed from developed countries is already far beyond what existing funds can provide, even if countries meets proposed funding goals of $280 billion by 2030 and $500 billion by 2050, said Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change for the NGO ActionAid.
But Singh expressed doubt this could be possible, because the $100 billion in total commitments pledged by developed countries in Paris appears to be “cooked up,” further hindered by the Trump administration’s refusal to deliver $2 billion of the U.S.’s original $3 billion pledge.
“We don’t have to convince developing countries to commit to their plans,” Singh said. “We just have to help them, but making that difficult is not going implement the Paris agreement, which we achieved from a lot of hard work.”
At the end of negotiations, U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa called negotiators’ progress “uneven,” warning that politicized debates on finance need to be resolved before delegates have to communicate the rules to their home government officials.
“It’s not a question of the text, whether it’s one way or another,” she said. “It’s really the mentality that needs to be addressed at the political level.”
While hairsplitting debates over brackets and annexes may have exhausted some delegates, those debates are critical to establishing equity and inclusion, said Sebastién Duyck, senior attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law. Developing country negotiators and civil society groups fear that if the rules don’t specifically account for issues like environmental damage, adaptation or human rights, the most vulnerable will not be protected, he said.
Espinosa said the United Nations will use the upcoming General Assembly meeting later this month and the release of a new report detailing the environmental and socio-economic impacts of global warming next month to focus nations’ attention before the December negotiations in Poland.
With many issues left unresolved in Bangkok, USC’s Meyer said it’s also critical for the incoming climate conference president, the State Secretary of Poland’s Energy Ministry Michal Kurtyka, to hold serious conversations with ministers about bringing “real money for real projects” to the table.
“Part of the political job is to convince leaders and ministers, not just the negotiators here, that more has to be done on climate finance in the next three months,” Meyer said. “It’s not clear that that’s fully understood yet.”