View from COP22 in Marrakech: “No Comment”

By Scott Stephenson, Assistant Professor, Geography

Among Trump’s priorities for his first 100 days in office is to cancel payments to UN climate change programs and use the money to “fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure.” Putting aside the details of which infrastructure would be upgraded and how the former UN payments would support such a plan (spoiler alert: there aren’t many), this plan threatens to severely undermine one of the key mechanisms facilitating a global energy transition: climate financing. In the context of the UNFCCC, climate financing refers to the channeling of payments, mainly from developed countries and international entities such as the EU, to fund mitigation and adaptation projects and spur low-carbon growth and development. Climate financing played a vital role in the drafting of the Paris Agreement because developing countries argued, justifiably, that they would be unable to transition directly from cheap energy sources like coal to cleaner, more expensive renewables without financial and technological assistance. Furthermore, the notion that developed countries are largely responsible for global warming thus far meant that the developed world would bear the bulk of the funding responsibility in accordance with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility.” The Green Climate Fund is the central mechanism for achieving long-term financing under the UNFCCC, and coming out of Paris had set a goal of raising $100 billion per year by 2020. The US made the first payment of its $3 billion pledge to the GCF in March of this year. Now, with an incoming administration hostile to the UNFCCC, the GCF and other climate financing mechanisms will likely soon be dealt a serious blow, and may become much more reliant on support from the private sector.


Today I sat in on the meeting of the “COP Contact Group on Matters Relating to Finance” hoping to hear some discussion, or at least acknowledgment, of this new uncertainty. However I was disappointed when the dialogue remained squarely on the planned agenda throughout the two-hour meeting. I had so many questions. Has the US role in these talks changed after the election? Has the election result altered the US agenda at this COP? What would a US absence mean for the negotiations going forward? Answers to these questions and more would have to wait, as I received a polite but firm “no comment” from the US delegation. Ditto from the US press office staff, who pointed out that they work for the Obama Administration, whose goals at this COP have not changed since November 8. As an academic accustomed to conferences with spirited and lengthy (sometimes too lengthy) Q&A sessions, I was out of my element.

Outside of the official negotiations, discussion of the election fallout could be found much more easily, underscoring an interesting divide in the organizational structure of the COP. Meeting rooms dedicated to official business of the COP carry the weighty gravitas of diplomatic discourse, while a separate exhibition hall plays host to numerous “side events” more closely resembling panel discussions at academic conferences. These events feature speakers from NGOs, academia, and government (speaking in an unofficial capacity). At one such event on fossil fuel divestment, the elephant in the room was finally addressed with a vigorous discussion of what a Trump presidency might mean for efforts to pursue a “managed decline” in coal production. Katie Thomas, Bernie Sanders’ Energy and Environment Advisor, laid bare the reality that any meaningful progress on an energy transition in the next four years will likely have to happen at the state and local levels. While this did little to assuage my fears, her unvarnished candor was a refreshing change from the dead-end I had hit with the delegates earlier. Thomas also confirmed my creeping suspicion that a purely market-based strategy may be the only practical way forward for clean energy for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, at least we have Republicans like Chuck Grassley, who has vowed to vigorously defend wind power from a Trump Administration assault if necessary.