The decision by Donald Trump on 1st June to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement rocked world news. Global leaders quickly reacted with strong public messages and civil society was keen to show its disappointment. However it was something he had always said he would do during his campaign, so should we really be surprised? And more importantly, what really are the effects of this latest announcement and what will it actually change?
On the face of it, not much will be different because the president had already taken steps to undo Barack Obama’s climate policies and reactions from global leaders reflecting civil society desires to continue to act on climate change have been prominent. However, others will have to step up to the mark if climate change is to be dealt with seriously. The first test is around the G20 summit and the Warsaw summit with Eastern European leaders the day before. More needs to be done if there is to be a unified approach in adhering to climate pledges.
The Paris accord was only possible because it contains no punitive tools.
Firstly let’s look at the agreement itself; is it legally binding and can the US pull out?
The agreement states that no country can withdraw within three years of it coming into force and the process of withdrawal takes a further year to complete. So the US will not be able to formally submit its notification for withdrawal of the Paris agreement until 5th November 2019, one day after the next US presidential election, making it highly unlikely that Mr Trump will have pulled out from the Paris agreement at all during his term in office.
The Paris accord was only possible because it contains no punitive tools. The targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are not legally binding, however the framework is. The framework does include submitting the five-year review of Nationally Determined Contributions towards implementing measures that will help prevent global warming.
Yet in any case, the president had already signed an executive order in March to undo Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), the national programme aimed at combating climate change. Its goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025, in comparison to 2005. The plan called for the closure of ageing coal-fired power plants, the reduction of methane emissions produced by oil and natural gas drilling and stricter rules governing fuel efficiency in new vehicles. President Trump’s order cancels these ambitions and goes further still by allowing more freedom to sell coal leases from federal lands.
So although an undesirable situation for many, to a large extent the US could remain in the Paris agreement even if it didn’t act on climate at home. This then would not have been a surprise following his climate change sceptic rhetoric.
Here then comes the mystery; in the announcement there was no mention of leaving the rest of the UN framework so one would assume therefore that the US still agrees to uphold the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), closely linked with the Paris Agreement. They include, paradoxically enough, climate action, protection of life below water, clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities and communities to name a few. In this sense the end goal may remain the same.
Pushing aside this last thought though, Mr Trump seems to be going further in the opposite direction. He seeks to make the US less dependent on energy imports and wants to return to coal. Coal is one of the dirtiest energy supplies and the energy independence that the US enjoys is mainly due to gas. So the changes he is making are not favourable to those who seek a cleaner, healthier, safer society.
Many US State senators and local government officials also made it clear that they did not agree with the decision and that they would take it to court.
The international landscape
In addition, 147 countries have ratified the Paris agreement meaning that Mr Trump’s suggestion of re-entering negotiations and looking for a better deal is very doubtful.
Many global leaders were quick in reacting to the announcement, making public appeals beforehand and plans to step up climate efforts after it was formalised. Many US State senators and local government officials also made it clear that they did not agree with the decision and that they would take it to court. Even the most prominent American businesses appealed against it, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Wal-Mart included. Even Exxon Mobil and Shell appealed against it, companies that are accused of being responsible for the effects of climate change, having hidden it for years and fabricated scientific analysis against climate change. These companies are now turning to renewable energy because if only just from an economic standpoint and without also considering the health, security and environmental reasons, investing in renewables makes more sense than investing in fossil fuels.
Global Heads of State have been clear and united in the cause to try to reduce global warming. Similarly the EU-China summit ended in a joint press conference on the topic of environment. However trade seems to continue to be a challenging issue and prevented an official joint statement being made possible.
Action on climate change is proven to be a good way to combat international security, which is why it will be one of the main priorities to address at the international level. The US is rapidly losing its credibility in international relations. Its reliability and diplomatic power is under serious question by many. In the past Mr Trump has claimed that China created the climate change theory as a ‘hoax’.
Therefore the build-up to the G20 taking place in Hamburg has also given the opportunity for most European and international heads of state to show a unified approach and pledge for a joint solution on climate at the meeting where Mr Trump will participate.
Many are worried about president Trump’s protectionist and isolationist approach.
The meeting also aims to discuss common approaches to trade. Many are worried about president Trump’s protectionist and isolationist approach. The climate agreement came about in the first place because the trade battle linked with climate is quite real. It is also why it had to be an international agreement. Many companies will claim they are at a disadvantage if US companies do not have to limit their emissions. Mexico, Canada, Europe and China have either already established or are about to implement carbon trading systems to try to limit the amount of CO2 emissions a company is allowed to emit. Furthermore, in the past, agreement on climate policy has often helped further difficult trade negotiations between the US and China.
We must remember that the US is still the world’s largest historical emitter, despite China overtaking the US last year in being the biggest emitter. However China was a climate laggard, now it is a climate leader and is currently the world’s leader in renewable energies, with most capacity in renewables. It also provides a clear plan which provides certainty for business and further investment and planning.
For the climate this announcement hasn’t changed much. Generally all the other countries in the Paris agreement will continue to work towards their pledges. The international trend is definitely moving towards a sustainable transition.
The Paris Agreement is a blueprint for job creation, stability and global prosperity. A transition to clean energy is an opportunity desired by many. It will help create more jobs and spur innovation, it can help promote better trade. It is not a liability and for the US, like many others it will help ensure competitiveness.
Many developing countries are making a shift to so-called green technologies and energy production. This change is also visible in the US, according to the Department of Energy, solar industry in the US now employs twice as many Americans as coal and solar employs more than coal, oil and gas combined. The outlook therefore still looks positive.
What needs to happen now?
The big test is here already. The US president is heading to Warsaw for a summit with central and eastern European leaders. He plans to use the occasion to promote the sale of US liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the region which currently heavily relies on energy imports from Russia. The meeting will take place just one day before the G20, making it key in determining how future climate, energy policy and international security issues will play out across Europe. At a time when the EU needs to be stepping up its climate ambitions to match other leading nations, the attention needs to be focused on moving away from fossil fuels and on encouraging leaders not to be afraid of a just transition to fairer and more sustainable model of growth and development.
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