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US blocked consensus on climate action at G20

PRI logo PRI 7/24/2019 Adam Wernick
a group of people posing for a photo: World leaders from 19 countries and the European Union met in Osaka, Japan, where all but the United States reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. © Jorge Silva/Reuters

World leaders from 19 countries and the European Union met in Osaka, Japan, where all but the United States reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement.

While disruption of the climate seems to be advancing quickly, climate protection negotiators in Bonn, Germany, recently struggled to flesh out the mechanisms of the Paris climate agreement. And at the G20 meeting in Japan, the US blocked any consensus on climate action.

“It was a very intense discussion,” said Alden Meyer, of the G20 meeting. Meyer is director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The Japanese hosts of the meeting were desperately trying to find a consensus between the 19 countries [of the G20] that are still in the Paris Agreement and the United States, which has said it intends to withdraw — and that is causing deep divisions,” Meyer explained. “Despite the Japanese effort to get consensus, it was very clear the United States was not willing to sign on to anything which mentioned the Paris Agreement, the need for deep decarbonization or the urgency of action on climate change."

Related: Is climate change causing us to experience ecological grief?

The result was the same as the previous two climate summits in Germany and Argentina: A separate paragraph was inserted for the United States explaining that “it is not in the Paris Agreement, it does not intend to meet its Paris commitments, and why. The other 19 countries indicated that for them, Paris remains irreversible and they intend to go ahead,” Meyer said. 

The discussion among the 2,000 delegates in Bonn also got quite heated, Meyer says. The meeting was intended to prepare for COP 25, the 25th Conference of the Parties in Santiago, Chile, so the delegates focused on decisions they would be forwarding for consideration at that summit.

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change 

“The big, unfinished piece of business coming out of the Katowice, Poland, summit last year was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which is the so-called ‘market mechanisms,’” Meyer said. “Can countries cooperate with each other to meet the pledges they put forward to reduce their emissions under the Paris Agreement? They did not make much progress on closing any of the deep divisions over ways to ensure that any market mechanisms work for the benefit of the environment, not just to reduce costs to emitting countries, but actually contribute to raising ambition." 

The question of "loss and damage" — that is, the reality that less-developed countries are having to cope with the effects of climate disruption caused by more developed countries — was also on the agenda.

In Bonn, Meyer says, the negotiators were attempting to frame what's called the terms of reference for how to conduct that discussion in Santiago in December: “What’s on the table? Is it just backward-looking at how they've done since the loss-and-damage mechanism was set up six years ago at the COP in Warsaw? Or are they going to look forward? Especially, are they going to look at ways to mobilize more financial support for countries that are struggling to cope with the mounting impacts of climate change over the next several decades?”

“It's a very intense issue and countries like the US are ferociously resisting any meaningful discussion of expanding financial resources for loss and damage."

Another climate meeting will take place in New York this on Sept. 23. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for world leaders to come to a one-day event during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

Related: How European kids are schooling politicians on climate change

“The explicit focus of that meeting is to raise ambition — particularly to hear from countries [on] how they plan to increase their current commitments and pledges under Paris,” Meyer said. “All the analysis shows that even if countries carry out the commitments they've made, they only get us about one-third of the way towards the emissions reductions by 2030 that we need to have any chance at holding temperature increases below two degrees Celsius.”

This summit’s goals are aimed at the 2020 Conference of the Parties meeting, which is the deadline for countries to give their final answer about whether they're prepared to raise the ambition of their current commitments under the Paris accords.

“This is going to be a very high-profile moment. That's the good news,” Meyer said. “The bad news is we're not yet clear what the major emitting countries are going to be willing to bring to the table. So far, none of the big players are willing to formally say they will increase their commitments. That is going to be the task before us, not only in the lead-up to the summit, but for the rest of this year and going into next year."

While Meyer sees hopeful signs here and there that some nations are edging toward more forceful action to address climate disruption, the slow pace and the outright refusals to act represent “the power of the fossil fuel industry and the power of inertia and vested interests in a number of these countries that are really slowing down the response that we should see.”

“We're not moving at anywhere near the pace that we need to head off truly devastating impacts of climate change, and that is depressing,” he said. 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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