Environment Ministers Highlight Climate Action Commitment at Montreal Meet

21 September 2017

Environment ministers from 34 countries met on Saturday 16 September in Montreal, Canada, for high-level talks aimed at providing a political boost towards tackling the climate challenge, particularly ahead of UN negotiations coming up in Bonn, Germany, this autumn.

The meeting, convened by Canada, China, and the European Union, saw many governments reaffirm their pledge to implement fully the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, given US President Donald Trump’s announcement earlier this year of his plan to withdraw his country from the accord. (See Bridges Weekly, 8 June 2017)

The landmark climate accord entered into force last November, after surpassing the necessary threshold of ratifications and greenhouse gas coverage. Currently, 162 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have ratified the agreement, out of the total 197. (See Bridges Special Update, 6 November 2016)

Ahead of the summit, EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete said that the 28-nation bloc " remains committed to the Paris Agreement and its full and swift implementation.”

“Our aim is to raise global climate ambition, follow through with concrete action, and support our partners, in particular the most vulnerable countries," he added.

At the Montreal conference, participants agreed that the Paris Agreement should not be re-opened, with many deeming it “irreversible,” according to a co-chairs’ summary released after the event. Furthermore, they highlighted that the climate challenge is “critical” and that governments must respond urgently in order “to accelerate the global transition to a low-carbon and resilient economy.”

"We continue to make the case that, like the United States, we want to create jobs, we want to create economic growth and there's a C$30-trillion opportunity when it comes to clean growth and climate action," Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Catherine McKenna said during the meeting, according to comments reported by CBC News.

Trump said in June that his withdrawal plans were motivated by concerns that the Paris deal places the US at an unfair economic “disadvantage,” arguing that it could lead to drastic losses in jobs and hurt household incomes.

Bonn coming up

The summit brought together a large cross-section of countries, including some of the world’s largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters, as well as smaller nations suffering from more immediate climate risk.

Notably, the event also comes shortly ahead of the annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) in Bonn, Germany. At that meeting, which is scheduled for 6-17 November, countries are expected to advance on the work programme for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, known also as the Paris “rulebook,” among various other objectives. (See Bridges Weekly, 24 May 2017)

In Montreal, many countries reaffirmed their goal of finalising the work programme by next year, along with hammering out the modalities for the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue. The latter will mark the first occasion where countries will get to review initial progress on their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which could then inform future versions. It will also serve as a trial run before a planned “global stocktake” of these NDCs five years later.

The EU, Canada, and China have also said they would be willing to host another ministerial next year.

Domestic, international scrutiny of US climate stance

The domestic US debate on climate change has been in the limelight once more in the wake of consecutive hurricanes that have devastated parts of the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. Trump was asked by reporters last week whether these extreme weather events had made him reconsider his climate action stance, to which he responded that the US has “had bigger storms than this.”

Meanwhile, at the international level, speculation has grown in recent weeks over whether the Trump Administration may revise its approach towards the Paris Agreement. According to sources quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the White House has been weighing the possibility of “re-engaging” with the deal, subject to getting better conditions.

The US was represented at the climate ministerial in Montreal last weekend, and the North American nation will not be able to leave the Paris Agreement before November 2020 due to a clause prohibiting parties from withdrawing within four years after its entry into force.

When Trump announced in June his plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, he had also pledged to start “negotiations to re-enter the Paris accord or a new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States.”

In response to this recent speculation, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said on Monday that Washington would still withdraw from the agreement unless its officials could secure improved terms. He also suggested that this did not mark any change in the president’s “unambiguous” position on Paris, according to comments reported by Reuters.

The assertion, made in the margins of the annual UN General Assembly in New York, came the same week as Trump’s first formal speech to that body. While he did not overtly refer to the Paris Agreement in his remarks, Trump did repeat past concerns over “unfair” deals.

“The United States will forever be a great friend to the world, and especially to its allies.  But we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return.  As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else,” he said this week.

However, French President Emmanuel Macron, who was also speaking at the UN General Assembly for the first time, reaffirmed on Tuesday that the Paris accord was not up for renegotiation.

“[The Paris Agreement] can be improved, we can have new contributions, but we will not backtrack,” said the French leader, according to comments reported by Time magazine.

ICTSD reporting; “‘Paris agreement should not be renegotiated': Talks with environment leaders underway in Montreal,” CBC NEWS, 16 September 2017; “Trump Administration Seeks to Avoid Withdrawal From Paris Climate Accord,” THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, 17 September 2017; “Trump adviser says without new terms, U.S. still leaving climate pact,” REUTERS, 18 September 2017; “France’s Macron Says the Paris Climate Deal Is Not Up for Debate,” TIME, 19 September 2017.

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