Swiss worry: backtracking at climate talks

Members of the press and delegates gather at climate talks in Marrakesh Keystone

When the Paris agreement on climate change entered into force this month, it was hailed as a major breakthrough toward controlling the planet’s rising temperatures. But as the United Nations conference in Marrakech ended on Saturday, the mood – reflected among Swiss diplomats and media – had changed to one of consternation.

This content was published on November 19, 2016 - 13:49

The Paris agreement marked the first time that governments have agreed to adopt legally binding limits to rises in global temperature by controlling the industrial emissions that are heating the planet. The talks in Marrakech were meant to add details to the accord. They ended with adoption of a work programme until 2018 aimed at limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

On Saturday, the Swiss delegation said in a statementExternal link that it had focused mainly on the formulation of “climate objectives, market mechanisms and transparency”.

Swiss Environment Minister Doris Leuthard also led the negotiations on funding for climate-related projects around the world, and announced the Swiss contribution of CHF5 million for developing countries to help mainly with technology transfer.

Trump's shadow

However, the headline-stealer of the talks did not even attend. That would be US President-elect Donald Trump, whose surprise election this month cast his threat to withdraw the United States from the agreement in a new light – causing shock waves in Marrakech.

“The most important person in international climate policy was missing: Donald Trump,” noted the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ). “Trump once dismissed global warming as a joke, and promised during the election campaign not only to withdraw from the Paris accord but also to torpedo Barack Obama's plan to reduce CO2 emissions and to demolish the nation’s environmental agency, the EPA.”

At the talks, some negotiators and observers discussed whether and how to retaliate economically or diplomatically against the United States if Trump makes good on his threat. Mexican and Canadian officials are discussing carbon tariffs as an option, for example, and France’s ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a possible European Union-wide carbon tax on all US goods.

“The negotiations have shown that there is still some ways to go before reaching a common agreement,” said the statement by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment.

“The slow pace at which they were held sometimes reflects the persistence of fundamental disagreements between countries,” it said. “Negotiations were mainly hampered by the attempts of many developing countries to return to a strict distinction between industrialised and developing countries, as was the case before Paris.”

Momentum lost?

The Marrakech talks exposed the risk of slowing momentum since the Paris agreement entered into force, reported the Tages-Anzeiger.

The talks “brought no new decisions on international climate policy, but were a gauge of how serious the parties to the accord are”, the newspaper said. “But the euphoria of Paris has now settled a bit.”

It also reported that Franz Perrez, the diplomat who headed the Swiss delegation to the talks, came away a bit disappointed because he believed “the pace of the negotiations could have been stronger.”

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