By: Ping Manongdo

Negotiators at Bonn, Germany talks to limit global climate change for the past 10 days have worked under the added challenge of having United States negotiators at the meetings who say they’re there to “protect and advanced US interests”  while in the US the government is busy dismantling its Environmental Protection Agency.

The talks are assuming greater urgency as it becomes more and more apparent that the participating nations are far behind in meeting the goal of holding temperature change to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

President Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull out of the United Nations-sponsored Paris Agreement hasn’t dampened the participating countries’ resolve to advance strategies to cut carbon emissions. But they face a daunting challenge to meet goals prescribed in Paris by 196 countries in 2016.

US negotiators have continued to participate in the sessions, called by the unwieldy title the “48th sessions of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation and Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice” over the past two weeks. But what exactly are they negotiating for?  

A US Department of State official, in an emailed response, said the US continues to participate in the climate negotiations “in order to protect and advance US interests and perspectives, and ensure a level playing field among all countries.”

Even with the administration pouring cold water on the talks, the US and China are co-facilitating negotiations on a “rulebook” creating a framework for implementing the Paris goals and transparency guidelines of reporting progress when it begins implementation in 2020. The rulebook is central to the discussions because it outlines how the targets agreed upon under the Paris Agreement will be achieved.

Asked whether there is a chance Trump is considering reversing his earlier announcement of leaving the Paris Agreement, the state official said no information is available about this at this time, but that as a country, the US is doing its part to lower emissions through investments in cleaner innovation and technology. Without a government commitment to limiting greenhouse gases, the task is obviously far more difficult.

But in Bonn, US delegates have only negotiated on items that are comfortable for them, said Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for Massachusetts-based nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), who said that the US delegation has been doing their work with “one hand tied behind their back.”

“It’s no secret that the US delegation is hamstrung and could only try to negotiate on items where there is not a shift of position from the previous administration,” Meyer said in a May 8 interview.

Where one hand is tied behind the back, however, the other seems to be busy scrubbing off issues the US is not comfortable with, like whether or not fossil fuel interests should join the climate talks.

Jesse Bragg, media director for US-based corporate watchdog Corporate Accountability, said that the US and fossil fuel interests have tried to stop conflict-of-interest discussions from advancing.

“Once again, the United States and its pro-fossil fuel allies are on the wrong side of history, putting Big Polluters before people and the planet. But today’s results prove that no amount of obstruction from the US will ultimately prevent this movement from advancing,” he said in a statement.

The UCS’ Meyer is confident, however, that while Trump’s pullout could be limiting negotiators from doing what they need to do for limiting the planet’s continuing rise in temperatures, the reverse could be said of US scientists both here in Bonn and at home.

Amid Trump’s proposal to power saw the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to its lowest level since the early 1990s and to axe finance for climate-change research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), scientists are still doing their work to inform policies at these talks.

“If anything, it has encouraged scientists to be more vocal than they were because of their disappointment and anger over the position of the US administration,” Meyer said.  

Aside from announcing that US “wants out” of the Paris Agreement on June 1, 2017, Trump also submitted a written notice to the UN on its intended withdrawal on August 4. But any plan from the US to withdraw from the Paris Agreement can only be heard on November 4, 2019. There is a one-year waiting period before the withdrawal will be processed. So the US can only exit the Paris Agreement on November 4, 2020.

And if it changes its mind and decides to stay, it can notify the UNFCCC executive secretary and can re-enter the Paris Agreement 30 days after notice has been received.

Until then, the US as a party to the Paris Agreement still has to abide by the UNFCCC rules, including sending delegates to the climate negotiations and reporting its own emissions.

The US continues to be among the world’s top three emitters, sharing the space with China and the European Union (EU), altogether contributing more than half of the total global emissions.

At a press briefing on May 7, UNFCCC executive secretary Patricia Espinosa reiterated that the US as a party has the right to participate. “There is no question about the participation of the US as a party to this important process,” Espinosa said, adding that as a secretariat they are also bound to make sure that rules in the UN climate body are followed.

Nathan Hultman of the America’s Pledge Initiative, which is a party to the “We Are Still In Movement,” said that Trump’s announcement to withdraw has given birth to more opportunities to implement the Paris Agreement more deeply by activating climate action in individual US states and from the business community.

“The US federal government does not have all the levers. That is manifesting right now,” he said.

Ping Manongdo attended the Bonn talks as a representative of Climate Tracker. She is also a correspondent for Eco-Business