I remember the day when consensus was finally reached among negotiating countries for the Paris Agreement on climate change.
I had actually left the conference centre at Le Bourget, the Parisian suburb where the negotiations were being held for the 21st Conference of Parties(COP21), for the long train ride back to my hotel in central Paris. It was late, I was tired, and it was the last day of two long weeks of negotiations.
We all knew that the historic deal would be clinched that night; the hold up was due to the American outcry over some wording in the final agreement. American delegations to international conferences are always full of lawyers who scrutinise every single word.
President Obama was frequently seen pacing the halls of the conference centre, hurrying from one meeting to another with world leaders. He had made the fight against climate change one of his 'legacies' and was determined, along with the outgoing UN chief Ban Ki Moon, to get a positive outcome in Paris. Secretary of State John Kerry was also present with his legal team, fine-tuning the American approach.
Diplomacy eventually prevailed and by the time I reached my hotel and turned on the TV, the deal was done. 197 countries agreed to finally do something about combating climate change together.
Obama was able to sign the agreement without needing Congressional approval. He could do so since the agreement was an extension of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the US had signed in 1992, meaning that there was no legal requirement to go through the Congress again. Remember, it was President Bill Clinton who supported the Kyoto Protocol, only to have the Congress reject it upon his return to the US.
I happened to be on my way to Marrakesh, where the COP22 was being held, when Donald Trump was elected President of the US. The Paris Agreement had by then come into law as it had been formally ratified by 110 countries. Pakistan also managed to ratify the Paris Agreement just days before sending its delegation to Marrakesh.
My colleague Kashmala Kakakhel who was already at the COP22 told me that the election results left everyone at the conference in shock and that members of the American delegation were visibly shaken. Other countries, however, were determined to reaffirm their commitment to the Paris Agreement with or without American support.
WWF-International noted that one of the most positive messages to come out of the COP22 was the “consensus to defend the Paris Agreement and push it forward”. Marrakesh was where all the nuts and bolts of the agreement were discussed, which will be formalised in the form of a rule book by 2018.
It took more than 20 years of hard negotiations to get to this point, only for President Trump to dismiss diplomacy and science by announcing last week that the US was "getting out" of the agreement.
Sunita Narain, Head of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, did not hide her exasperation when she told me that with the US president’s latest assault on the global fight against climate change will create the efforts in meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement to become an uphill task. Trump has sounded the death knell for the agreement.
Trump’s decision has come at a time when there is, in fact, little time to waste. 2016 was the warmest year on record and efforts to curb climate change have not been sufficient.
Prior to the Marrakesh conference, the United Nations Environment Programme released an Emissions Gap report, warning that countries’ climate pledges amount to less than half of the cuts needed to reach the goals they agreed to in Paris.
Sunita’s colleague, Chandra Bhushan, said to me that we are already on the path to a dangerous temperature rise of even up to 3 degrees. The only foreseeable future course would be for the remaining countries to come together to modify the Paris Agreement to make it more effective.
I interviewed senior Bangladeshi climate expert Saleem ul Haq when I was in Marrakesh, who told me that if Donald Trump takes action against the Paris Agreement, this COP will mark the transition of global leadership from the US to China.
On the last day of the conference, I visited a side exhibition where I discovered that the last time Marrakesh hosted a COP was back in 2001. That is when the US pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. “We survived that, we will also survive their pull out from Paris” said one delegate. “Who knows how long Trump will stay in power. We should not be fixated on Trump; the momentum to build a low-emission economy and shift away from fossil fuels must not stop”.
Photos by the author.
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