Rob Bailey speaks with Gitika Bhardwaj in a two-part interview about how different countries including France, Germany and China approached the latest round of climate negotiations.

Chatham House
Nov 21, 2017 · 7 min read
A visitor walks past an earth mockup displayed at the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. Image: Getty Images.

Some of the world’s biggest coal users — China, the US, Germany and Russia — have not signed up to the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Can we expect some of them to eventually join?

Given the failure this week of Merkel to form a coalition government at home, it would be hard for her to make any policy announcements until she has a government in place because it could undermine her coalition government negotiations, so I think her hands are tied. Germany would be a big win from a European perspective because they still have a lot of coal in the energy mix and also because they are very influential with eastern European member states where coal is still very significant as well.

In terms of China, China’s coal use has gone up a little bit this year in contrast to previous years where it’s been flat-lining and therefore people have been talking about whether coal has now begun to peak in China. This could be a bit of a blip looking at the data, but at the end of the day, China is very cautious and still active in investing in new coal-fire capacity overseas so politically it will be difficult for China to sign up to something like this at the moment but hopefully not impossible. There should certainly be a focus on diplomatic efforts to engage with China on the coal phase-out agenda.

French President, Emmanuel Macron, announced some bold pledges at the talks, most notably pledging to close the funding gap left by the US for the UN’s scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Is this a success for international climate change efforts or was this a bit of political opportunism from the French leader?

All of these announcements are political in one sense or another. In a way, the name of the game is to make sure that leaders — whether its Macron or Xi Jinping — see political benefit and capital in making progressive announcements which are going to be good for the climate and good for humanity.

This is actually what governments and civil society need to be doing as we move towards 2018 when the facilitative dialogue — or the Talanoa dialogue as it is now called in honour of the Fijian presidency of the COP this year — is set to begin, the purpose of which, is to take stock of how countries are progressing towards meeting their collectively agreed long-term goals to decarbonize the global economy and then figure out what options might be available to ‘enhance ambition’ — and that’s the language in the text which is a bit grey because they haven’t said ‘increase ambition’.

What we need to see happening is governments talking to one another and agreeing to increase the ambition of their NDCs in time for the resubmission deadline in 2020. Governments need to get their act together quickly but that’s not going to happen through the negotiators — they don’t have the political remit — it’s going to have to happen at the highest political level. So creating stages for leaders like Macron to create momentum, can make these sorts of commitments he announced, an important part of the process.

Syria announced during the talks that it would be signing up to the Paris Agreement too, following Nicaragua who also signed the accord last month, making the US now the only country intending to no longer be a part of the agreement.

As the Syrian civil war rages on, why has the Assad regime decided to do this and why now? What does this mean for the embattled regime’s relations with the international community as it is still subject to European and US sanctions?

If you’re going to sign up to the agreement then the COP is the best place to do it. It was a symbolic announcement in that it now leaves America as the only country outside of the club.

Strategically, why might Syria have done it? The simple explanation is it’s because of international peer pressure from all of the other countries who have signed up.

The Assad regime might even be thinking that at some point or another they are going to be transitioning out of a horrendous period of civil war to a period of rebuilding and they want to make sure they have the full support of the international donor community and the best way to do that is through signing international agreements.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech at the COP raised a few eyebrows. The German government has previously been seen as a climate leader but now it looks like the country could miss the goals it pledged in Paris in 2015.

How much has domestic politics affected Merkel’s stance on environmental issues? Could we see Germany fall back from its climate leadership role?

It’s hard to say. Germany’s climate leadership is built upon the Energiewende, which is the big national programme to drive renewables onto the grid at volume, encouraging the costs to come down. This has been valuable to the whole world because we have all benefitted from the falling costs of solar PV for example. Now the Energiewende and other renewable technologies in Germany have their own unstoppable momentum so that I suspect will continue regardless of what shape the German coalition government takes.

Coal is the big question mark because it’s still in the German energy mix and the country has a significant coal lobby which has been successful in keeping coal in the mix so far and has also been successful on pushing back on tighter vehicle emissions standards for German car manufacturers in the EU. So I would argue that German climate leadership has always been slightly nuanced as a result of its domestic political economy and therefore I think there won’t be a big shift in the stances it has previously taken.

What roles did China, other developing countries and small island states play at the talks?

There was an expectation because it was a Fijian presidency this year, as well as the first COP hosted by a small island state, that there would be more of a focus on issues that are important for small island states like loss and damage, adaptation and climate finance. But there weren’t really any big blow ups on loss and damage for example. Some people I spoke to said the small island states have been more muted then usual and that was probably because they didn’t want to create too many problems for the Fijian presidency which has to remain neutral.

There was a bit frustration from vulnerable countries in general around the climate finance agenda. We saw some pushes to get clarity for a process by which developed countries that have made climate finance commitments will be held accountable for delivering on those — similar to how countries are accountable over their emissions reductions. But this was met with some resistance from some developed countries.

Why did China not take a more central role given the vacuum left by the US? There has been a lot written about how Xi Jinping has indicated a willingness for China to defend the global rules-based order and the international trade regime, as well as his defence of the Paris Agreement at his Davos speech earlier this year, and it’s easy to extrapolate from that that China wants to lead. But I don’t know whether China is at that point yet particularly on the climate agenda. China is still very cautious about stepping into a role where it is a global superpower and I think it’s careful about choosing where it is going to invest its international political capital.

China is also mindful of making pledges that it will be held accountable for by the international community. Although the pledges are non-binding, if you make a pledge and then don’t deliver, there’s a downside — no country wants to be the one failing to meet their commitments. China is therefore reluctant to put forward an NDC that it can’t deliver. The current NDC for China has emissions peaking by 2030 but all the indications are that China can achieve that well ahead of schedule.

On the other hand, if China can easily achieve its target, it can increase its ambition relatively easily without compromising its ability to achieve it. From a Chinese point of view, that becomes interesting because China is the world’s biggest exporter of renewable technologies: it’s building a lot of capacity in electric vehicles and battery manufacturing and wants to become the leading exporter in those too.

So greater ambition in other markets, particularly developed economies, creates potential opportunities for its exports. The question is, whether China can use its potential ability to increase its own NDC at relatively little difficulty as a way of extracting greater ambition from other countries, which it can then use to create new export opportunities for its manufacturing sector. So there is a strong argument for China that it would be economically beneficial for them, but they are still very cautious, and I find it difficult to see them becoming a climate leader before 2020.

What we need is positive political momentum that includes China but also everyone else. In the run up to Paris, China and the US were the main architects for this, but now that America is missing in action, the question is, what alliance of countries can take their place to create a similar momentum ahead of 2018.

Read Part 1 of the interview on www.chathamhouse.org for a look at the key themes of COP23 and where climate negotiations are headed next.

By Gitika Bhardwaj

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

Written by

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

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