Climate change has dropped off the political radar

Was the political masterstroke signed off in Paris the zenith of climate action, wonders Climate Home’s editor as countries go eerily quiet on what next

(Pic: NASA)

(Pic: NASA)

By Ed King

‘After Paris, what now?’ is a comment increasingly heard in conversations with civil society activists, diplomats and government officials.

A senior figure involved at the Paris talks asked me recently if I’d heard what plans NGOs had to keep the pressure up on leaders through 2016. They’d heard little. Neither, I confessed, had I.

It’s a curious state of affairs given last December nearly 200 countries finally agreed to start walking towards a future without fossil fuels.

But there are concerns that the diplomatic masterstroke signed off in the French capital was the zenith – and now world leaders have other things on their mind.

Fears of a global economic slump, US presidential elections, crashing oil prices, Syria, Brexit and the militarisation of the South China Sea have knocked global warming off the front pages.

Yvo de Boer: Paris was a small step for mankind, a giant leap for man

Add to that a mini exodus of the key figures who helped make Paris a success: UN climate chief Christiana Figueres leaves in July, COP21 president Laurent Fabius unexpectedly quit this week.

It’s still unclear who’s running the show for Morocco at this year’s UN summit. Control of the COP22 summit was first with the environment ministry, then foreign affairs, and now with the department of interior.

And there’s also flux at NGO level, with the WRI’s Jennifer Morgan leaving her influential role as unofficial civil society strategy chief to take joint charge of Greenpeace.

Earlier this week members of the Climate Action Network – a broad coalition of green NGOs – met in Berlin to work out a path forward. Those taking part described the talks as positive.

But with many US groups focused on the presidential elections and funding flows slowing, there’s a fear political pressure on the global process will dissipate.

Some groups in developing countries are struggling to keep their advocacy channels open when they’re most needed.

That’s a concern for those still engaged in working out how to solve climate change. The Paris pact offered a framework for slowing emissions, but the gaps urgently need filling.

Briefing reporters in London on Thursday, lead US envoy Todd Stern said outstanding issues include new rules on transparency and a common reporting framework, plus clarity on finance.

Plans for a global stocktake and possible increased set climate pledges in 2018 also need to be discussed – some emerging economies seemed less than enthusiastic about this in Paris.

Figueres alluded to the quiet in a tweet this week linked to a picture of global temperatures, which continued their record-breaking rise in January, in part due to an exceptional El Nino event.

The UN’s top dog Ban Ki-moon has also been on the case. “Our task is not yet over,” he said this week.

UN strategists are hoping this lull dissipates over the next month, with 22 April the date for world leaders to head to New York for a high-level ‘signing ceremony’ of the Paris deal.

“In 2016, we must go from words to deeds. The signature ceremony is an essential step,” said Ban.

Signs of progress

Beneath the surface moves are afoot. There’s a huge drive led by consultancies like Ricardo AEA to help resubmit the climate plans submitted by developing countries.

Many of these were loose documents, hastily written and full of generalisations.

The aim this year is to distil their main aims into documents multilateral development banks and the private sector can use as the basis for investment plans. According to Carbon Brief there’s $3.5 trillion of potential investments in the running.

Meanwhile the UN’s IPCC climate science body is investigating how it can cobble together a report into the potential impacts of warming above 1.5C, another demand from the Paris deal.

A green finance drive led by Mike Bloomberg and backed by the G20 could well deliver tough recommendations for fund managers later this year.

China’s forthcoming 5 Year Plan – due in March – will offer a sense how the world’s second biggest emitter and largest economy can further marry growth and carbon cuts.

And the Sustainable Energy For All Initiative, now led by the indomitable Rachel Kyte, has ambitious plans to connect everyone to cleaner forms of power well before 2030.

Businesses are also showing signs of delivering – this week Apple launched a $1.5 billion green bond, top fund manager Blackrock says climate risk is now a key indicator for its portfolios.

All talk and no action?

Still, there remains a lingering suspicion that many governments just wanted to get through Paris without causing a fuss, without contemplating what avoiding a 1.5 or 2C world really means.

Few of the so-called High Ambition Coalition have revealed how they will translate their soaring COP21 rhetoric into action.

Despite pushing for the inclusion of a 1.5C goal, the EU and leading members like the UK have declined to turn the dial on their climate plans accordingly.

According to carbon market news service Carbon Pulse, carbon prices barely budged after Paris, given the lack of short term implications of the pact, and have since fallen in the EU and US.

It’s early, sure, but Mission Innovation and the Global Solar Alliance – flagship clean-tech announcements at the start of December’s summit – remain more ideas than reality.

So much to do – for politicians and civil society alike. 2017 will be a clean slate, with a new UN secretary general (Figueres anyone?), new US president and new UN climate chief.

The case for a low carbon future is compelling, the framework offered by Paris ambitious, clean energy investment flows are soaring, coal is on the deck. It’s time to get to work people.

Read more on: Opinion | UN climate talks