Lesley Riddoch: Climate change progress possible without Trump

Donald Trump wont be attending the two-week COP 23 talks  but Arnold Schwarzenegger will be there. Picture: Getty
Donald Trump wont be attending the two-week COP 23 talks  but Arnold Schwarzenegger will be there. Picture: Getty
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There are grounds for optimism on making climate change progress without Trump, writes Lesley Riddoch

Can climate change talks starting today in Germany make headway, without Donald Trump? The surprising prospect is they probably will.

The Donald won’t be attending the two-week COP 23 talks, but the Terminator will – and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s message to the American president is uncompromising; “One man cannot stop our progress. One man will not bring back the dirty energy of the past.”

Why the confidence? On the face of it, the situation facing the 23,000 delegates gathered in Bonn is pretty grim.

A recent report suggests the Paris Agreement commitments won’t bring countries anywhere near the goal of capping further temperature rises to two degrees Celsius by 2050 — a failure that’s caused scientists to predict catastrophic climate change. A day later the World Meteorological Organisation said carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at record-breaking speed in 2016 to the highest level in 800,000 years.

Thanks to Trump’s controversial decision to champion coal and quit the Paris agreement in 2020, the official delegation from Washington is the smallest ever sent to climate change talks – and the most controversial, with one Trump adviser set to claim coal and other fossil fuels can curb global warming.

The good news for the planet, is that he’s on his own. Delegations of US governors, mayors and business people have formed the “We Are Still In”, group to reassure negotiators that outside the White House, much of America still supports the Paris Agreement.

The US Climate Alliance, representing 14 states and one territory, says that it speaks for around 36 per cent of the US population and would be the third biggest economy in the world if it was a nation state.

One of the governors who will be on the ground in Bonn is Washington’s Jay Inslee.

“So far, not one single nation state, city or county, municipality or school district has followed Donald Trump into the ranks of surrendering to climate change – his decision (pulling out of the Paris accord) has energised our efforts.”

Indeed another report published last week reveals cautious cause for optimism about what can be achieved through international agreement. Eight years after the transformational Rio Summit, 33 countries had peaked in their greenhouse gas emissions and have kept declining ever since. By 2010 the number of “peak emitters” – according to the World Resources Institute – had grown to 48 countries – including the US.

If all countries stick to their emission reduction targets, the total in 2030 will be 52, including all developed countries plus China and Brazil. That represents 60 per cent of the Earth’s emissions – all on the way down as a result of the Rio summit.

The actions of civic society groups have also delivered change. Since 2016, protesters in Europe Beyond Coal groups have helped retire 16 coal plants across Europe, with 39 more set to close, and the governments of the Netherlands, UK, Finland, France, Portugal and Italy all committing to being coal-free by 2030.

But problems still abound. The Bonn climate change talks are being held just 30 miles from Europe’s biggest single source of CO2 emissions – large open-cast mines near Cologne. But members of the European Environmental Bureau – Europe’s largest network of environmental citizens’ organisations meeting today in Edinburgh are hopeful that political parties negotiating Germany’s next coalition government can be persuaded to drop coal and make a strategic shift to renewables. Once again, Angela Merkel and central government isn’t leading the way – campaigners and business leaders are.

Germany’s largest insurer, Allianz, recently pulled out of coal completely to invest billions in wind energy. Similar winds of change are blowing in other boardrooms – especially big pension funds - and experts believe their gigantic resources could help generate the $5 trillion needed to meet the UN’s sustainable development goals.

But why should any of this interest Brexiting Britain?

Because in the area of environmental protection like so many others, “stand-alone” Britain may yet find itself to be an EU lawtaker, not an independent lawmaker.

Of course environmentalists do fear that without EU controls and directives the UK will once again become the “dirty man of Europe” it was before joining the EU. Since 1974, more than 1,100 UK environmental laws on everything from wildlife safeguards to energy efficiency, air pollution and marine conservation have been made at EU level. According to the Commons environmental audit committee, 80 per cent of our environmental rules stem from EU directives.

Without EU directives and the threat of a hefty fine, the UK government wouldn’t have decided recently to ban diesel cars by 2040. Without the EU’s Water Framework Directive and rules on transparency we wouldn’t know the quality of water in our rivers, beaches and lochs. Without the Frankovich ruling – allowing individuals to access EU courts for damage by governments who fail to implement EU rules – citizens would have little redress. Since all of these are about to disappear, it looks inevitable that the environment must suffer.

After all, important environmental protections (like the polluter pays principle) are enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon, which will be impossible to “roll over” into the Withdrawal Bill. Britain will also have to set up regulatory agencies and shoulder those costs alone instead of sharing them.

The biggest worry is that in the race to find new trade deals, old EU protections may get watered down or ignored. But Michel Barnier and the European Parliament are apparently determined to make sure Britain can’t “eco-dump” – cut standards to win contracts. In any case, possible new trading partners like Canada already configure their environmental laws to fit EU rules – it’s that important a market.

It may be that when the UK government finally “takes back control,” it will simply knuckle down and decide to do the same. And if it doesn’t the eco-minded public could apply considerable pressure.