There have been many speculations on whether Trump might pull out of the Paris Agreement. But very few suggestions have been made how to deal with it. If the international community wants to keep the chance to effectively mitigate climate change, the European Union and China must form a new coalition leading on climate protection.
So, do the US officially pull out? That’s not the point.
Myron Ebell, leader of the transition team for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), supported rumors that the USA will officially pull out of the Paris Agreement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated the opposite – please take a second to appreciate the irony that the ex-CEO of Exxon sounds like the voice of reason in this administration.
Nearly unnoticed, Republicans already introduced a bill to stop all funding for the IPCC, the UNFCCC, and the Green Climate Fund.The question is not, if the US pulls out officially since they will do that de facto for the next four years anyway.
The question is what the international community can do to compensate for the eco-political wrecking ball who happened to become president of the biggest historical emitter. There is a countless number of counter-measures, but the only one which realistically fills in the vacuum when the USA bid adieu to climate action: A Chinese-European climate coalition.
The easiest way to support that conclusion is by having a look at the global emissions. The EU comes closest to what the USA are emitting. But this alliance is even more necessary for political reasons.
Being the biggest historical emitter, the inaction of the United States could serve many other nations as an excuse to slow down climate action, too. While the technical details are highly complex, the international climate politics still mainly follow the principle of „I will do something if you do as well“.
The biggest danger of US inaction is not what it means for their own carbon emissions, but the implications of that for the 83% of emissions caused by other countries. It will need a strong coalition to push back his influence, and the only coalition with the political and economic influence to do that is China and Europe.
Why China and Europe?
If the biggest historical emitter steps back from climate action, at least one other big block from the developed nations has to keep up ambition. The only realistic candidate for that is the European Union. But this is not enough.
The Trump presidency carries the danger to enforce conflict between developed and developing nations. Many poor and emerging economies demand (for good reasons) more ambition from industrialized countries. And with the US-politics to expect in the next four years, this fingerprinting could heat up, leading to less ambition from developing and developed nations. To overcome this, Europe needs a strong ally „from the other side of the firewall“.
Meaningful climate action has only happened when coalitions formed beyond the traditional negotiation groups: This was the case at COP17 in Durban when countries agreed on a path towards the Paris Agreement. It was the case when a joint statement between the USA and China in 2014 set the stage for a legally binding agreement in Paris. And this was the case when a coalition of Europe the USA and over 70 developing nations pushed for an agreement in Paris that went beyond most expectations.
China is not only relevant because of its emissions. It is strategically vital to prevent a race to the bottom when the United States are not fulfilling their commitments.
China holds key position in three negotiation groups: G77+China, biggest group of non-industrialized countries, BASIC, block of emerging economies (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) as well as the Like Minded Developing countries, the group insisting the most on more ambition from industrialized countries and the right to develop (and emit more) for developing countries. But also the EU has a history of working with small island states and Least Developed countries.
Coalitions can work a bit like gravity, the more mass the more gravitational force that attracts other partners to join in. This was also the case during the climate negotiations at COP21 in Paris when more and more countries suddenly started joining the ambition coalition of the EU, the USA, and 70 developing nations. A Chinese-European coalition has the potential to counter Trump’s influence in the international negotiations.
Is it realistic?
Europe was involved in all big international climate victories and is the best bet to become a climate leader among the industrialized countries. However, EU’s position might depend on this year’s elections.
However, more people might be skeptical about China, but there are many signs of hope:
Right after Trump was elected, China made a series of statements ensuring it would stay committed to climate protection – no matter what the US would do.
The times of China being the major driver of the global rise of emissions are coming to an end: China imposed a moratorium on coal mining for the next three years and recently stopped building 30 new coal plants which were already under construction. Two domestic motives drive China’s climate protection: health and economy. Most observers were surprised how fast China ratified the Paris Agreement.
Despite that, China has been not very keen on agreeing to any international top-down commitments which limit their national freedom. Climate nerds might remember some late night the hilarious discussions between the „very dear friends“ of Brazil and Bolivia in the closing plenary of the last COP in Marrakesh – a discussion mainly driven by China in the background who did not want to commit to top-down timeframe changes under the Paris Agreement.
But the basics for this coalition are given, even more so is the need.