Why the US should quit the Paris Agreement

Trump’s presidency would be extremely detrimental to the Agreement and destroy the climate convention negotiated over the past 25 years

The main story emerging from the 22nd Conference of Parties (CoP22) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at Marrakech is that the countries have agreed to frame the rulebook of the Paris Agreement by 2018—a full two years before the provisions of the agreement kick in. But the real story is the disquiet about the future of international climate negotiations post Donald Trump’s election as the US President.

I was in Marrakech for the last week of CoP22 and the discussions at Bab Ighli village—the venue of the conference—were all about the Trump presidency and the chances of American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. There were two strands of narrative on Trump and the US withdrawal—one was straightforward while the other was a spin-doctored version of reality.

The straightforward narrative centred on speculation on how quickly and in what manner will Trump withdraw, and the implications of this withdrawal on the climate treaty. Within the climate change networks, legal documents were exchanged about the possible route that Trump would take to leave the agreement. Reports were being circulated on the impact of the US withdrawal on the funding of the UN Secretariat which organises these meetings. There were discussions on the fate of the Green Climate Fund and the proverbial mirage of billions of dollars that the developed countries promised to pay to the developing countries to combat climate change in Paris last year.

Then there was the spin-doctored version. Led by some US-based non-profits, academics and their supporters, this narrative suggested that the US withdrawal was not that important. They claimed that even without Trump, industry along with a few “climate-friendly” cities and states would ensure significant climate mitigation action in the US. They were assuring everyone that the Paris Agreement would be alive and kicking even without the US. But these arguments are hollow and misleading. The following facts show the disconnect between US presidential candidates and the reality of climate change:

  • Climate change was not even an issue in the US elections. Apart from a few utterances by Hillary Clinton on renewable energy in the presidential debates, there were hardly any discussions on the topic. The fact is that a large number of US citizens do not believe in climate change and even a larger number does not want to sacrifice their “lifestyle” to cut emissions.
  • All the Republican candidates in the US election Primaries were climate change deniers and promised to increase the use of coal and other fossil fuels.
  • Trump himself is a climate change denier and has reportedly termed the phenomenon a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.
  • During the elections, the Trump camp released a television advertisement featuring an Ohio coal miner. The 30-second clip was aired in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania—prime coal mining country—promising an increase in coal mining and protection to mining jobs.
  • Trump has appointed Myron Ebell, a climate change denier, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team. It is important to understand that the Clean Power Plan, under which power plants in the US have been given targets to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is administered by EPA. Trump has vowed to kill this rule.
  • Harold Hamm, who became a billionaire by fracking for shale oil and gas, is Trump’s adviser on energy and is likely to be US’ next energy secretary. This man has talked about dismantling regulations and increasing production of fossil fuels.
  • Shares of fossil fuel companies in the US are soaring. Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the country, which had filed for bankruptcy, saw its share value go up by 50 per cent after Trump’s victory. This company contri buted a quarter of a million dollars to Trump’s campaign.

The US currently produces more oil than Saudi Arabia, more gas than Russia and more coal than India. And a Trump presidency would ensure that the fossil fuel production and consumption in the US will only go up. This will end Obama’s Clean Power Plan and with this, the US commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. It is important to understand that this commitment itself was insufficient. On a 1990 baseline, the US would have reduced emissions by a mere 13-15 per cent by 2025.

Let us now consider the argument that even if the US withdraws, it would have little effect on the Paris Agreement. The facts tell a different story:

  • The Paris Agreement was designed to get the US committed to the UN Climate Treaty. It has no targets for countries and has no consequences for non-compliance. 195 countries, therefore, agreed on a weak treaty that has put the world on a path to more than 3°C temperature increase by the end of the century. If the US junks the agreement, other countries, might become sceptical about its efficacy and quit.
  • The US contributes significantly to whatever climate finance is made available by the developed countries to developing nations. For instance, of the US $10.3 billion pledged to the Green Climate Fund, $3 billion has been pledged by the US. A US withdrawal would have significant impacts on climate finance.
  • The US currently accounts for more than 15 per cent of total global CO2 emissions; its per capita emission is 17 tonnes. If the US does not take significant action on emission cuts under Trump’s presidency, it would have a cascading effect: countries are not likely to increase or even stick to their targets under the Paris Agreement.

In a nutshell, without the US the Paris Agreement, as it stands today, is as good as dead. So, what is the way ahead? Should we try to convince Trump to remain with the Paris Agreement (as UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon and many other leaders have reportedly alluded to) or should we allow him to leave?

Whether the US stays or leaves, Trump’s presidency would be extremely destructive to the agreement. For instance, he may not provide the funds pledged. He may go back on the US commitment to cut emissions. He may demand disproportionate contributions from developing countries or demand a change in rules to suit US businesses. This would slowly finish the Paris Agreement and even the UNFCCC. At a time when 2016 has been declared as the hottest year on record (with the global temperature about 1.2°C above the pre-industrial era) and there is a huge mitigation gap to meet the 2°C target, we need countries to cut more emissions and quickly. And we need the US to take leadership in emissions cuts. But Trump’s presidency would not allow this to happen.

It is in this context that I think it might be better that the US leaves the Paris Agreement. The world has invested too much in these negotiations for the past quarter of a century to be destroyed by a climate change denier who at the maximum would be the US president for the next eight years.

Once the US withdraws, countries would have the time to do a reality check vis-a-vis the Paris Agreement. The US withdrawal might strengthen solidarity among the countries. They might like to make agreement stronger and incorporate economic sanctions so that Trump and his likes cannot walk away. They might decide to abrogate the agreement entirely and work on a new one. We can only speculate the reaction of the remaining 194 countries, but what is clear is that the Paris Agreement without Trump is better than the Paris Agreement with Trump. At least we will know who the enemy is!

But as the saying goes, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. During the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the US under Bill Clinton pushed everybody around and reduced the emissions cut target for the developed countries from 20 per cent to mere 5 per cent. The US argued that the Republican Party and the US Congress would not agree to a treaty with stiff targets and hence a weak Kyoto deal came into existence. Then George Bush came and walked away from the Kyoto Protocol. Obama and his team used the same tactics from Copenhagen onwards to dilute UNFCCC and a weak Paris Agreement was signed. And now, Trump is planning to withdraw from this Agreement as well. We should not let this happen.

The international community should never agree on an agreement just for the convenience of one country, even if that country happens to be the most powerful (and polluting) country of the world. We should agree on a climate treaty which is in the best interest of all, especially the poor and the vulnerable communities of the world.