As the UN climate talks drew to a close in Bonn on Friday, delegates will look back on these talks as the moment the US tried to present Donald Trump’s vision for environmental action – and was met with outrage and derision.
These two weeks have seen nearly 200 countries come together to support the Paris agreement, in an unprecedented effort to coordinate against climate change. Now, with Syria on board, the US is left as the only country outside this global endeavour.
For its part, the American delegation tried to explain how “clean coal” could play a part in slowing climate change. The response was best summed up by the unlikely figure of Pope Francis, who dismissed the “perverse attitudes” of climate deniers and urged negotiators to accelerate efforts to curb carbon emissions.
No one here has been slow to speak out against the US federal government. Yet the summit has also shown clearly how the US under Donald Trump can continue to damage the Paris accord, and thereby the world, in ways we are only just beginning to understand.
This year’s conference, held in Germany but hosted by Fiji, was the first stage of a two-year process at the end of which countries need to agree on the rulebook to implement the Paris agreement.
In June, Mr Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the accord – but this will not take effect before November 2020 at the earliest. As a result, the Trump administration is still technically sat at the negotiating table, and remains a threatening force to the fragile balance of the deal.
“They have decided that they are not going to be playing the game of the Paris agreement but they still want to be inside the room and decide the rules,” Harjeet Singh, Action Aid’s global lead on climate change, told The Independent.
Countries siding with the US inside the negotiations and on matters such as its coal initiative should look beyond the apparent legitimacy of the country itself, he said. “If you are siding with the US now, you are not just siding with a country, you are siding with Donald Trump. Do you want to side with a climate denier?”
Speaking at the conference, Emmanuel Macron said this week that the EU should pick up the bill where the US drops its financial contributions to a key advisory body on climate change.
But, according to Mr Singh, there is a danger that other rich countries in the EU, as well as the likes of Australia and Canada, use the general outcry against America as a “cover-up” to avoid genuine progress on key issues such as ramping up ambition before the Paris deal comes into effect in 2020.
“The US is becoming a punching bag. Everybody is focusing on what it is doing and nobody is noticing what other rich countries are doing,” said Mr Singh.
Steve Herz, senior policy adviser on climate and energy for the Sierra Club environmental organisation, told The Independent that even if the US had not deliberately taken the negotiations off track, he was concerned that “if the Trump administration goes backwards, other countries could decide to follow suit and tone down their ambitions”.
“Some countries just don’t want to move forwards and they could decide to say: ‘Look the US is not doing anything, why should we be doing something’,” he added.
But time for robust action is pressing with early estimates from the Global Carbon Project showing global carbon emissions expected to rise 2 per cent in 2017 after remaining relatively flat over the last three years.
There was some cause for hope in Bonn, Mr Herz said, highlighting the momentum built by the American grassroots “We’re Still In” campaign, backed by cities, states and businesses and led by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But even the creation of an alliance of countries committed to phase out coal – led by the UK and Canada – appears to have backfired. That’s partly because it has left a traditionally climate-friendly Angela Merkel in an awkward position, under fire from activists for failing to announce a coal phase-out in Germany, while the host country is on track to miss its 2020 emission reduction target.
And the UK and Canada-led alliance appears to have left the door open for a reactionary pro-coal axis of countries, which could be spearheaded by Poland and – you might have guessed it – the US.
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