1 June 2017 | It’s official. Today, the United States joined a tiny group of nations consisting of just Syria and Nicaragua in rejecting the historic Paris Climate Agreement. In an announcement earlier today, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions from the global accord that aims to “hold the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”
“I don’t want anything to get in our way,” Trump said during the announcement. ” So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.”
Many national and business leaders consider the Paris Agreement a remarkable feat for many reasons not the least of which is because nearly 200 nations signed on to a agreement to lower emissions. The agreement achieved this largely because it adopted a flexible bottom-up approach that recognized each country is unique.
Trump’s actions fulfill a campaign vow to pull the US out though the process is expected to take four years, which means the decision may ultimately fall to voters in the next presidential election. However, Trump said the government is ceasing all implementation of the agreement immediately.
He cited the accord’s “draconian financial and economic burdens” as reasons to pull out saying it put the needs of citizens of other countries above Americans.
“I cannot in good conscience support a deal that punishes the United States, which is what it does,” Trump said.
He called out the Green Climate Fund saying it poached funds slated to fight terrorism and that the agreement blocks clean coal development. He also took issue with Paris Agreement provisions that mandate large polluters like the US finance green growth in fast-developing countries such as India.
Former President Barack Obama released a statement disagreeing with his successor.
“The nations that remain in the Paris Agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created,” he said. “I believe the United States of America should be at the front of the pack. But even in the absence of American leadership; even as this Administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.”
Some Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, applauded the decision.
“The Paris climate agreement was simply a raw deal for America. Signed by President Obama without Senate ratification, it would have driven up the cost of energy, hitting middle-class and low-income Americans the hardest,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “In order to unleash the power of the American economy, our government must encourage production of American energy.”
Within the climate community, the economic argument to leave the Paris Agreement didn’t hold up. And while they’re not denying the news is dismal, it isn’t a surprise and climate and policy experts say the burden now falls to states, the private sector as well as the rest of the world to lead and achieve goals laid out in the global accord.
States, Businesses Take the Lead
“At times like this, we give thanks to the American Constitution,” says President and CEO of the World Resources Institute Andrew Steer. “Thankfully, most of the decisions that really matter for a country are made at many different levels.”
“New coalitions of states, cities and businesses will help fill the void, but people will not forget that the Trump administration let them down at this critical moment,” Steer added.
California is one such state filling the void.
“California will resist,” Governor Jerry Brown says. “This effort is misguided. I would even say this is an insane move by this president. The world depends on a sustainable future. He’s going the other way. It’s going to affect peoples’ health, the stability of countries and our entire future.”
Brown adds that the California economy increased faster than the rest of the country under policies considered more stringent than what the Paris Agreement is calling for.
“We have a zero-emission mandate for vehicles. We’re hoping for 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2030. We have energy efficiency and tough compliance standards. We have a cap-and-trade program,” he says. “Trump is wrong when he says this is bad for jobs. It’s good for jobs, the jobs of the future.”
Several big businesses agree with Brown. Last month, 1,100 businesses including Apple, General Electric, Dow Chemical Company and Bank of America urged the president to stay in the agreement through full page newspaper advertisements.
“By expanding markets for innovative clean technologies, the agreement generates jobs and economic growth,” they wrote. “U.S. companies are well positioned to lead in these markets. Withdrawing from the agreement will limit our access to them and could expose us to retaliatory measures.”
“In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the private sector come to life,” Steer says. “And it isn’t just the obvious ones. It’s the heavy manufacturers as well and the ones we never expected to come forward.”
“These are not tree-huggers,” Mindy Lubber, the President and CEO of Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainable business, says of the corporations endorsing the Paris Agreement. “They are leading industrialists offering some of the greatest jobs in America. They have stood up along with fossil fuel companies in saying it’s an imperative to stay in the Paris Agreement.”
A Rising Climate Leader
Trump criticized China saying the country had more wiggle room in the Paris Agreement to utilize fossil fuel-based energy and increase its emissions, but the country actually appears to be stepping into a global leadership role in the climate realm.
“It’s just plain wrong to say China has done nothing and will continue to expand its coal production,” Steer says. “In the last four years, China has been lowering its coal consumption.”
During the World Economic Forum in January, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of the need to balance economy and ecology.
“It is important to protect the environment while pursuing economic and social progress – to achieve harmony between man and nature, and harmony between man and society,” he said. “The Paris Climate Agreement is a hard-won achievement…all signatories should stick to it rather than walk away.”
In 2014, Xi forged a groundbreaking agreement with Obama on clean energy and climate change cooperation. This year, China is working with Europe on joint efforts to uphold Paris Agreement commitments and accelerate low-carbon development, and the nation also has plans to unveil the world’s largest carbon market.
The Art of the Re-negotiation
During the briefing, Trump said he is willing to renegotiate or engage in efforts to forge a completely new accord, and the UNFCCC has said it’s ready to engage in dialogue with the US. That being said, 196 nations signed the Paris Agreement and 147 of those have ratified it. It cannot be renegotiated on the request of a single party, the UNFCCC said in a statement.
“Apparently the White House has no understanding of how an international treaty works,” says Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “There is no such thing as withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and then re-negotiating.”
Formally, the US government can express its intent to withdraw to the UNFCCC three years after it ratified the accord, which is on November 5, 2019. From there, it will take one year to officially withdraw.
Figueres says it’s possible the Trump administration may change its stance on the agreement three years into the future.
“Perhaps in jest but also quite seriously, it’s entirely possible that by November 2019 the evidence of the benefits of decarbonizing and investing in clean technologies around the world will be so evident that the Trump administration may even change its mind,” she says.
Ultimately, some observers say the costliest component of Trump’s decision to back away from the Paris Agreement has little to do with climate action as that will continue through various channels. Rather, the US may lose diplomatic credibility within the international community.
“Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will leave the U.S. diplomatically adrift, at odds with nearly 200 countries,” Steer says.
“This is sad but it’s saddest for the credibility of political leadership in the US,” Figueres says.
For the Best?
In terms of ongoing climate negotiations, Gus Silva-Chávez, a longtime observer of the international talks and the head of Forest Trends’ REDDX initiative, says a complete withdrawal of the US isn’t the worst-case scenario.
Without the US at the table blocking progress or trying to re-negotiate the agreement, there may be hope. Rest of the world needs to lead. https://t.co/FXuFz0yQAf
— Gus Silva-Chávez (@GusREDD) May 31, 2017
In an earlier interview with the Bionic Planet podcast, Silva-Chávez explains. “They could go in and say, ‘The UN is not going to tell the US what to do.’” “They could say, ‘We don’t need an extensive, detailed rulebook. All we need are the basics, and we’re not going to agree to anything more.’”
Clearly, that would slow an already complex and cumbersome process down. Silva-Chávez also mentions another concern. Stalling tactics from the US could provide cover for other countries to do the same.
While Trump’s announcement is discouraging, climate practitioners remain optimistic.
“We should all go to bed giving thanks that this didn’t happen three years ago,” Steer says. “If this had happened three years ago, we wouldn’t have a Paris deal. There’s never a right time for this but it did happen when the momentum has grown so much that the damage isn’t exactly minimized but it’s containable.”
And policymakers like Brown continue to lend momentum to the cause.
“California is all in,” Brown says. “We’re on the field. We’re ready for battle and while our president may be AWOL in the battle against climate change, we’re not.”