Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The two Americas at COP23

The Trump Administration will be the clear villain at the Bonn climate change talks.

The Ocotillo wind farm in California, July 2016 (Photo: Daxis/Flickr)
The Ocotillo wind farm in California, July 2016 (Photo: Daxis/Flickr)

Before his fall from grace, former Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards used to talk about 'the two Americas' to describe the gap between the poor and the wealthy. But the phrase earned an afterlife, not least to describe the philosophical chasm between the coastal areas that overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton and the 'flyover' regions that delivered a reality TV bully to the presidency.

Over the next fortnight, the world will witness up close another split in American life: that between its President and its bureaucracy on the question of climate change.

That division was made plain on Friday, when 13 US government agencies published a report detailing the evidence that humans are overwhelmingly responsible for global temperatures rising to what is now the hottest period in the history of civilisation. Bizarrely, the report was approved for release by a White House that rejects climate science (Donald Trump has described it as a 'canard', and a concept 'created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive') and that is promoting fossil fuel industries while killing Obama-era clean energy programs. The glaring contradiction is either an illustration of how poorly the administration is functioning, or how little it is troubled by consistency in this era of choose-your-own news – or possibly both.

It sets the scene for this week, when a US delegation representing the President will join those from nearly 200 other countries in the German city of Bonn for the annual end-of-year UN climate change conference. Publicly, the US will be a main focus of the talks (known as COP23, short for the 23rd Conference of the Parties). Trump confirmed in June that his Administration would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate deal. It would see the US join Syria as the only countries outside the agreement (Nicaragua, the other stand-out, announced in September it would sign up.)

But leaving the deal is not straightforward. Under the rules agreed in Paris, the earliest the US can withdraw is 4 November 2020, the day after the next presidential election. In the meantime, the most it can do is step back. All eyes in Bonn will be on how the US navigates this; early signs are that the US stance will bear little resemblance to Trump's bluster.

The US delegation is headed by Thomas Shannon, a career diplomat who was acting Secretary of State until Rex Tillerson was confirmed earlier this year. Shannon is no Trump acolyte, having told a Bangladeshi audience in December 2015 that climate change was 'one of the world's great challenges'. The team he leads will be significantly smaller than that under Barack Obama. It is expected to mostly absent itself from discussions about increasing ambition to combat climate change, instead focusing on the rulebook governing the deal, including pushing for greater transparency of the reporting, measurement and verification of emissions from developing giants China and India, a stance not a million miles from that taken under Obama. Long-time observers are hopeful, if not optimistic, that US delegates could make a useful contribution in this area, rather than be an across-the-board roadblock.

Beyond the mostly technical discussions run by civil servants, the Trump Administration will be the clear villain of the piece. It has already copped flak for its plans to host an industry event on the sidelines of the conference to promote the idea that US fossil fuels and nuclear power can help poor countries meet electricity needs and cut emissions.

Trump will also be the focus of sustained criticism from a collection of US businesses, states, cities and institutions. Billed as the 'We Are Still In' coalition, it claims to represent more than a third of US citizens and has attracted high-level support. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is bankrolling an alternative US diplomatic effort. Californian Governor Jerry Brown, whose state has an economy bigger than that of most countries and is cutting emissions by 40% by 2030, has been formally appointed a special advisor for states and regions at the conference.

The message will be that Trump cannot stop this. US emissions have fallen in recent years, mostly due to the rise of cheap shale gas as a replacement for coal, and it is unlikely the President can do much to reverse it. But he could potentially slow the decline and give cover for other countries to do the same.

This is another of the big questions for the meeting: will there be backsliding or can the momentum of Paris can be built on, the US notwithstanding? So far, most of the key countries have gone out of their way to lock in behind the deal. China and the EU – the world's biggest and third-biggest emitters – have pointedly reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris targets, describing the deal as 'more important than ever'. India also remains on board, but stresses it wants to hear more from wealthy countries on what they will do before the post-2020 Paris targets kick in. Little progress has been made on the issue of 'loss and damage', under which the wealthy are supposed to compensate the poor for the climate-related destruction they have already locked in.

In the effective absence of the US, China is expected to assume a leadership position. It is easily the world's biggest carbon polluter, but there are signs it may have turned a corner and already met its target of emissions peaking before 2030. Its consumption of coal has declined for three years straight, and it is introducing a national emissions trading scheme. That said, it is also launching an extraordinary $1 trillion infrastructure investment program across 69 countries, likely to have a huge carbon footprint. And its actions remain opaque, at best. What does it say about the state of the world that it is expecting economic and environmental leadership from an autocratic nation increasingly in the thrall of one man?

But here we are – leadership is needed. Though rightly heralded as a world-first agreement that brought together virtually all players, the Paris deal remains an outline waiting to be coloured in. It aims to hold the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and acknowledges the need to try limiting the rise to 1.5°C. But the voluntary targets put forward demonstrate that countries are not yet proposing to do anything near what is necessary.

A UN Environment Programme assessment found emissions are on course to be 30% higher in 2030 than needed to avert a 2°C rise. Still, UN Environment head Erik Solheim found reason to be positive, citing a three-year plateau in emissions from burning fossil fuels driven by the changes in the US and China. Fiji, which is hosting the Bonn talks, is proposing a 'talanoa dialogue' (named for a Pacific island process that emphasises talking and storytelling to make good decisions) next year to take stock of what more needs to be done.

Where does Australia fit into this? A recent analysis found it is the sole wealthy country where emissions from energy combustion are at a record high. Global emissions from burning coal are falling and several developed countries – Britain, Canada, France, Italy – have pledged to phase it out as a power source in the next few years. Meanwhile, the Turnbull Government is backing what would be one of the world's largest coal mines in the Queensland outback, and for announcing a new policy, the National Energy Guarantee, that is being interpreted as promoting coal at the expense of renewable energy.

It's being noticed. Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg won't get near Trump's public enmity, but he is unlikely to get a free ride when he turns up to represent his government.

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