By Fabian Knödler-Thoma
After a careful staging and keeping the global public in suspense for weeks, President Trump announced that the US will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Whilst this is certainly not the best news for the international fight against climate change, it comes neither as a surprise nor is it likely to severely affect global mitigation and climate cooperation efforts.
With news agencies around the world breaking the news, the announcement has been sensationalised. However, it was mainly a president keeping one of his campaign promises in a country where the belief in human-induced climate change has never been bipartisan. The US already refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which arguably happened at a different stage and depth of climate cooperation. But also the Paris Agreement needed to be carefully phrased in legal terms so as not to be dependent on a House or Senate vote.
More importantly, a withdrawal of the US from Paris is unlikely to affect global mitigation efforts and greenhouse gas concentrations significantly if other countries and the civil society keep and intensify their efforts to stay below two degrees of warming.
Firstly, although the US is still one of the major single contributors of greenhouse gases globally, its share of the total is less significant. Currently, approximately 85% of CO2 is emitted outside of the US. Because of the growing contribution of developing countries, the US’s share is likely to further decrease in the future. This is backed up by the majority of simulated emission pathways, which find only minor differences dependent on US compliance. This does not mean that there is no responsibility of the US for climate action, in fact, the cumulative contribution of the US since 1850 is almost 30%. But assuming America’s CO2 emissions of around five billion tons will remain constant over the next few years only demands slightly more effort from other countries.
Secondly, the US only withdraws from the Paris agreement on a federal level. Many states and cities will keep their comprehensive climate action plans. Two months ago the states of New York and California reaffirmed their commitment to aggressively fight climate change – unconditional on federal action. Together they represent around 60 million people and California alone is the 6th largest economy, with a higher GDP than that of France or India. Together with the cities involved in platforms like the C40, they will continue the fight against global warming during the Trump era. The reaction of the major of Pittsburgh was already indicating this form of regional resistance, who was outrageous that Trump deemed the withdraw in the interest of his citizens. And in the last 72 hours, dozens of states and cities submitted their own pledges for the Paris agreement, with more expected to follow next week.
Furthermore, while Trump can withdraw from climate change agreements, he cannot withdraw from climate change. Temperatures will continue to rise and will lead to more frequent extreme weather events. Mitigation today cannot prevent these catastrophes from happening in the present but can lower their probability of occurrence in the future. When climate change induced hurricanes and floods hit America’s coasts and destroy millions of people’s livelihoods, it will be Trump’s responsibility that he chose to not care. And it is our task to hold him responsible.
Climate change negotiations always depend on broad participation. But equally, they depend on leadership. Fortunately, it seems that China and the European Union are willing to take the lead, politically and in terms of policy action. Politically, because various leaders have already reaffirmed their commitment despite Trump’s announcement. And in terms of policy action, because China will launch the world’s largest emission trading scheme this year, while Europe works on reforming its existing one. Probably the biggest hazard of Trump’s withdrawal is a potential domino effect, causing additional countries to step down from the agreement. But leadership and public commitment can prevent this from happening, and right now it looks like the rest of the world will instead step up its game. For instance, leaders from China, India, and the European Union – all major emitters- used their scheduled meetings in the last days to reinforce their commitments instead of questioning the treaty.
Another promising aspect are the developments in green technologies. Solar photovoltaic is already competitive in plenty of places all over the world, turning from the more expensive alternative to the cheaper default. Its pace of diffusion outperforms all major forecasts. This will not only automatically reduce emissions without political commitment. It will also significantly lower the incentives to disengage from the Paris agreement and therefore reduce the odds of a domino effect further.
Besides, the rest of the world does not have to await events, it can also react to American non-compliance. Economic tools like a carbon border adjustment tax can account for different levels of mitigation. If American companies then want to sell their products in other countries and the US refuses to price carbon, the carbon will be taxed at the border. These tools are even in line with the WTO principles, as they only correct for unfair trade conditions. Although some warn against a possible trade war, it could at least be considered as a measure to deal with a permanent non-compliance.
Trump even request to renegotiate the agreement. This can only be appraised as an attempt to completely unravel the agreement. The treaty in its current form is A renegotiation would divert resources needed to make it more comprehensive in order to strike a deal with somebody who is not interested in a comprehensive treaty. Instead, the rest of the world and the progressive parts of the US can continue their efforts to lower emissions. The Paris framework easily allows a readmission. In the meantime, civil society needs to keep up the pressure on global leaders to stand committed and to work together for a greener planet. We can afford to wait four or eight years for a better president or a better Congress. What we cannot afford is to pause the global fight against climate change.