Weekly Analysis

Weekly Analysis

Limited Glasgow Agenda Prompts Call For Broader Climate Diplomacy

September 27, 2021

A former Trump administration climate official says the agenda for upcoming talks in Glasgow, Scotland, should be broadened beyond its current focus on developing rules to implement the Paris Agreement to address “climate diplomacy” that links trade, environmental and economic policies to drive deeper emission cuts.

“You don't have the right folks in the room” at the Glasgow talks to achieve the emission reductions needed to achieve the goals set down by the Paris agreement, says George “David” Banks who served as an energy and climate advisor in the Trump White House.

The negotiators represent “environmental ministries with few economic policy levers at their disposal,” he adds.

Banks’ call for more expansive climate diplomacy offers a framework by which to view the success and shortcomings of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, which faces a potential defining moment at the upcoming Glasgow talks.

Banks, who now serves as executive vice president of the American Council for Capital Formation, was an advocate for the United States remaining in the 2015 Paris accord even as President Donald Trump moved to officially withdraw the United States from the agreement.

Yet Banks argues the constraints of the Paris process in dealing with hundreds of participants and the limited scope of the upcoming talks, referred to as COP-26, make it difficult to achieve what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Instead, he argues for the United States to “pursue smart, bilateral and plurilateral climate diplomacy” with those talks “unfortunately, probably focused” on avoiding a 2 degrees Celsius increase in global temperature to allow time to get commitments for tougher emission cuts from China and other big emitters who have resisted ambitious targets under the Paris agreement, which is focused on avoiding a 1.5-degrees increase.

“There is no way we can achieve a 1.5 degrees [goal] without China moving much, much more quickly and capping its emissions. We just don't have enough carbon budget left,” according to Banks, who spoke Sept. 23 at the virtual Clean Energy Week conference during a panel discussion on the upcoming COP-26 meeting.

The panel included Kim Carnahan of ENGIE Impact, chief climate negotiator for the Obama administration in Paris, who argues for continued progress under the structures of the 2015 agreement.

Banks, on the other hand, argues for the United States to lead a multinational effort among the major economies to establish what he calls a “carbon club” for emissions trading which he says would set a de facto global price on carbon.

Banks’ proposals are not particularly new, but the timing and context of his arguments are significant as the Biden administration gears up for what will likely be a pivotal event for implementing its climate policies, which the administration says present both an economic and environmental imperative.

Biden has embraced achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 for achieving the Paris goal of staving off a 1.5 degrees increase, a move that has offered a guiding principle for his whole-of-government approach to reducing greenhouse gases.

Biden announced the United States’ nationally determined commitment (NDC) to halve emissions by 2030 under the Paris agreement at a White House climate summit in April, setting in motion various government policymaking procedures including massive spending in dual infrastructure and reconciliation legislation which would fund most of Biden’s “build back better” climate programs.

‘An Outlier’

“The United States is an outlier amongst representative democracies in that its legislature is not consulted on the NDC before it’s submitted to the UN,” Banks says referring to the fact that European environment ministers are members of their parliaments.

“When Democrats make the argument, for example, that we need to pass the reconciliation bill in order to make the NDC [emissions] target, then I don't see how we can ever have a national consensus on the Paris agreement without giving the Congress some role in shaping the NDC,” Banks argues, adding “we certainly need a national consensus on the Paris agreement in order for us to be reliable partners in the international stage.”

To that end, Congress’ role on the NDC has been linked by Democrats to passage of the reconciliation and infrastructure bills, even as moderates and progressives within the party squabble over the scope, price tag and sequence for voting on the legislation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has set a revised Sept. 30 deadline for voting on the bills, as part of a broader strategy for funding and keeping the government open.

Democrats are pursuing budget reconciliation procedures, which do not require any GOP votes, to approve a $3.5 trillion bill that includes most of Biden’s climate priorities. The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the Senate in August includes some clean-energy investments for carbon capture technologies and electric grid upgrades. But the reconciliation bill includes the bulk of what would be needed to achieve Biden’s net-zero goals including a proposed clean electricity payment program (CEPP) that would pay utilities to meet emission-reduction targets and would penalize them for falling short.

The CEPP has reportedly come up on the chopping block as moderate Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) have pushed back on the cost of the overall package.

Amid this congressional wrangling, the White House last week sought to use both the UN meeting and President Biden’s first meeting with leaders of the Quad -- India, Japan, Australia and the United States -- to burnish American leadership on climate change.

Quad leaders reaffirmed their support for achieving the 1.5 degrees goal of the Paris agreement. “Quad countries will work together to keep the Paris-aligned temperature limits within reach and will pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” according to a Sept. 24 statement released following the White House meeting. “To this end, Quad countries intend to update or communicate ambitious NDCs by COP26 and welcome those who have already done so. Quad countries will also coordinate their diplomacy to raise global ambition, including reaching out to key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region,” the statement says.

The group, which is focused largely on stemming the tide of Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region, has pledged to work on three fronts: setting tougher emission targets, promoting technological innovations, and supporting adaptation.

‘Not The Silver Bullet’

The Quad meeting came on the heels of Biden’s first speech as president to the UN General Assembly during which he pledged to double the U.S. commitment to an international fund for helping poorer countries adapt to climate change.

“Today, I’m proud to announce that we’ll work with the Congress to double that number again, including for adaptation,” Biden told the U.N. meeting Sept. 21. “This will make the United States a leader in public climate finance.”

Biden’s highly anticipated pledge to increase climate financial aid was seen as a move to secure more ambitious greenhouse gas targets ahead of the Nov. 1-12 U.N. climate summit in Glasgow.

The president cited his April pledge to double public climate financial assistance by 2024, relative to the latter half of the Obama administration. That figure represents roughly $5.7 billion.

At the same UN meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a pre-recorded video message to the General Assembly, said his country will no longer fund international projects for coal-fired power plants. Foreign policy analysts say Xi’s announcement reflects China’s sensitivity to international market pressures -- with Western-led capital organizations increasingly focused on low-carbon energy -- even as it resists external pressures to set tighter domestic climate goals.

Last week’s international meetings bring into relief what’s at stake, and on the agenda, for the Glasgow talks in November, including increased pressures to toughen commitments for reduced emissions under recently released and upcoming NDCs by COP-26 participants and international funding for climate adaptation measures, as well as ongoing talks for the so-called Article 6 rules needed to allow international emissions trading in order to meet global GHG targets.

“Look, I don't think any serious climate policy maker ever believed Paris was the silver bullet to solving global climate change,” says Banks, asserting the importance of the upcoming talks even while highlighting their limits.

“We need it, but it's not the silver bullet…. It serves a really important role,” he says, adding: “Paris is the political foundation for not only global cooperation, but between like-minded countries who might want to take more ambitious action to reducing emissions.”

According to Banks, “there's no question that in order for the United States to pursue bilateral and plurilateral initiatives related to climate change, we’ve got to be part of the agreement…that's just the price of admission for being able to do that.” -- Rick Weber (rweber@iwpnews.com)

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