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Macron Tries to Keep the Paris Agreement Alive

At last week's summit in Paris, the French president expressed optimism—but where's the rest of the money?
Former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger with French President Emmanuel Macron and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel aboard a boat on the River Seine after the One Planet Summit in Paris on December 12th, 2017.

Former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger with French President Emmanuel Macron and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel aboard a boat on the River Seine after the One Planet Summit in Paris on December 12th, 2017. 

There was a moment last week—as television cameras showed dozens of heads of state, business leaders, and A-list celebrities filing off a riverboat into the newly completed Seine Musicale venue in Paris' suburbs—when it seemed as though the international climate process might get the financial help it desperately needs.

In the end, the December 12th event convened by French President Emmanuel Macron to mark the two-year anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement produced a flurry of new announcements and initiatives that could eventually shift the world's economy onto a greener, more sustainable pathway. But the new commitments fall far short of the hundreds of billions—some say trillions—of dollars that must be mobilized in order to achieve the Paris Agreement's goals of limiting climate change and helping poor countries survive its worst effects.

The big announcements at the summit included the unveiling of the Climate Action 100+ pledge, from 225 institutional investors managing more than $26 trillion, to pressure the world's 100 largest companies to implement more environmentally sustainable policies. A total of 16 countries, including Brazil and Norway, said they would start adopting policies to make their economies carbon-neutral by mid-century. And 36 countries, including Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, jointly called for the international shipping sector to take on binding climate commitments for the first time.

Two new large-scale carbon trading markets were also announced: one in China—Chinese diplomat Xie Zhenhua said it would be the world's largest once it starts operations—and one in the Americas, announced in Paris by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and including Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the state of California.

But there were no new sources of cash identified for the underfunded Green Climate Fund, which has $8.7 billion in assets after United States President Donald Trump said he would not honor the remaining $2 billion that Washington committed to pay under predecessor Barack Obama, and yet is supposed to ramp up to $100 billion a year by 2020. No new revenue streams were unveiled to help poor countries rebuild from the effects of climate change. Multiple speakers at various One Planet fora spoke about the need to put a worldwide price on activities producing greenhouse gases, but no such initiatives were announced.

"You have to look at this event as part of a process, not as an end in itself," Mohamed Adow, a climate campaigner with Christian Aid, tells Pacific Standard. "The importance of the One Planet Summit will depend on what happens next and then what happens after that, and after that."

The problem of coal helps underline the difficulties of a set of challenges this complex.

The World Bank, which in 2010 stopped funding coal-related projects, announced in Paris that it would stop funding oil and gas projects starting in 2019. French insurance giant AXA said it would divest nearly $2.9 billion from coal projects, and Dutch banker ING said it would no longer take on new clients that earned more than a tenth of their revenue from coal. Canada and the World Bank jointly announced a plan to "accelerate developing countries' transition away from traditional coal-fired electricity."

Yet despite all that, coal still has plenty of friends, and falling coal prices remain one of the biggest challenges for cleaner renewable energy sources. Thanks to rising demand in Asia, coal is just three years removed from its all-time high, and last year was still one of the six strongest years on record for the energy source.

Next year, for example, Poland will become the first country to host the annual United Nations climate summit for a third time. But the country remains Europe's most important producer of coal, and the country was instrumental in extending the European Fund for Strategic Investment—which funds fossil fuel and renewable energy projects in about equal proportions—for an additional three years, over objections from France and others.

Meanwhile, Trump boasts of being a major advocate of coal, and there were reports out of Washington (so far unconfirmed) on the same day as the One Planet talk that the White House could be putting together a coalition of pro-coal countries to counterbalance the anti-coal forces.

Even World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, in his Paris announcement, said the institution would continue to fund other fossil fuel projects in "rare" circumstances where that energy source was the fastest and easiest route to development in poor countries.

"Getting countries to agree to the Paris Agreement two years ago was a big challenge, but reshaping the economy is much more challenging," Hans Andre Djamba, an environmental official with the Democratic Republic of the Congo who works with the Green Climate Fund, tells Pacific Standard. "Private companies and industries don't have an umbrella organization as countries do with the United Nations. It will not be fast or easy to get them aligned."

Macron was joined in Paris by fellow national leaders from Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K., along with more than 60 minister-level representatives. The high-profile roll call of those who sailed up the Seine to the conference center also included billionaire businessmen Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, and Bill Gates, and celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But it was just as important to note who did not participate: The leaders of the world's 12 largest greenhouse gas-emitting countries—including China's Xi Jinping, Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of France's eastern neighbor Germany—were conspicuously absent. A report released by monitoring group InfluenceMap on the sidelines of the Paris summit said that, of the world's 25 largest corporations, just one—technology giant Apple—had a net-positive influence on the world's environment.

Still, organizers dubbed the event a success. Macron said it would be looked back on as a "turning point," while U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the talks were "an investment in the world's future." Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and one of the central architects of the negotiations that produced the Paris Agreement in 2015, said the countries represented for the new Paris talks the "strongest alliance yet gathered to fight climate change."

All those statements may prove to be true. But chances are, that will not be nearly enough.