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The U.S. Quitting the Paris Climate Deal Will Only Make Things Worse

Jonathan Pickering's picture

onathan is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Canberra, based in the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance. He completed his PhD thesis on fairness in global...

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  • Jun 1, 2017

Trump signs executive order unwinding Obama´s climate policies

Some argue that the U.S. leaving Paris would be beneficial to global climate policy, others believe it would be harmful. In this article, Jonathan Pickering of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra argues that the US quitting Paris will make matters worse.

In another article, Luke Kemp, Lecturer in International Relations and Environmental Policy at Australian National University, takes the opposite view. Courtesy The Conversation.

US President Donald Trump has announced that he will decide this week whether to follow through on his threat to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Some news outlets are already reporting that he has decided to leave. But would the world be better off if the US stays or goes?

An array of environmental groupsbusinesses and leaders of other countries are calling for the US to stay. While their reasons vary, a common theme is that the US has both a moral obligation to play its part in global climate policy, and an economic interest in doing so.

Many of these arguments rely on the US taking strong domestic climate action. But Trump has already begun dismantling a raft of Obama-era climate policies. Unless reversed, these moves will ruin any chance of the US meeting its current target of reducing emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Trump’s draft budget would also drastically cut US climate aid to developing nations.

With this in mind, the question becomes: is global climate policy better served if a recalcitrant major power stays on board or if it goes its own way?

Considered this way, the arguments for leaving become harder to dismiss. In two thought-provoking commentaries, climate policy experts Luke Kemp of the Australian National University and Matthew Hoffmann of the University of Toronto argue that the world would actually better off if the US pulls out. Two reasons loom large in these analyses: the US would be prevented from white-anting further UN negotiations, and the backlash to its withdrawal would spur on China, Europe and other nations to greater action.

But if we look closely at each argument, it’s far from clear that leaving is the lesser evil.

Sidelining US obstruction?

It is not a foregone conclusion that the US, if it stayed, would be able to hold the talks hostage or successfully water down rules aimed at preventing countries from backsliding on their targets. Granted, the UN’s consensus-based model makes this a real danger, but climate negotiations have reached decisions even in the face of opposition from a major power, as happened when Russia was overridden in 2012.

What’s more, withdrawing wouldn’t necessarily stop the US trying to play spoiler anyway. Formal withdrawal from Paris could take until late 2020. Even then (assuming a more progressive president isn’t elected shortly after that), the US could still cause trouble by remaining within the Agreement’s parent treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The “nuclear option” of withdrawing from the UNFCCC itself would create further problems. Rejoining it would be likely to require the approval of the US Senate (which, given its current makeup, seems highly doubtful), whereas a new administration could rejoin Paris through a Presidential-executive agreement.

Will other countries do more?

Major economies like China and India have their own domestic reasons for cutting emissions, not least local air pollution and energy security. Both China and India plan to stick with the agreement regardless of what the US does. There are signs that they will exceed their current climate targets, thus more than outweighing the increase in emissions resulting from US climate policy rollbacks. We can’t be confident that US withdrawal would encourage China and India to do any more than they are already doing now.

The Kyoto Protocol provides a sobering precedent: while those countries that stayed in the protocol complied with their targets, none of them raised their targets to take up the slack when the US withdrew.

Writing in The Conversation, Luke Kemp suggests that US withdrawal could trigger countries to slap carbon tariffs on US imports. Large economies such as the European Union and China could attempt to do so outside the Paris framework, but few (if any) major trading partners will be eager for a trade war with the US.

US withdrawal is just as likely to demotivate other countries as energise them. Nations with less domestic momentum on climate policy may likewise pull out, water down their current or future targets, or fail to ratify Paris. For now, Australia plans to stay in, regardless of what the US does. A greater risk is Russia, the world’s fifth-largest emitter, which doesn’t plan to ratify the Paris Agreement until at least 2019. Other reluctant countries whose stance may be influenced by what the US does include Saudi Arabia and the Philippines (which have ratified Paris) and Iran and Turkey (which have not).

Fallout for multilateralism

Neither of the two arguments I’ve discussed so far amounts to a solid case for leaving. Meanwhile, there is another key reason for the US to stay: the risk that its withdrawal would strike a broader blow to the principle of multilateralism – the idea that tough global problems need to be solved through inclusive cooperation, not unilateral action or a spaghetti bowl of bilateral deals.

The UN climate talks are firmly integrated into the bigger picture of global diplomacy, and the Paris deal itself was seen as a huge achievement for multilateralism. Both the US and Australia previously suffered significant diplomatic fallout for deciding to stay out of Kyoto.

The international reaction to withdrawal from Paris would be even harsher. US participation was a prerequisite for China and India to sign up, and key elements of the treaty were designed to enable the US to join. To pull out after all that would be an egregious violation of trust and goodwill.

Some might welcome the resulting diminution of Trump’s ability to push through his agenda globally. But ultimately the erosion of multilateralism – already damaged by Brexit and Trump’s abrasive trip to Europe – is in no country’s interest if it undermines international trust and cooperation on issues like trade, public health and security.

Treaty withdrawal is uncommon in international diplomacy, arguably much more so than non-compliance. One of the few studies on this issue found that only 3.5% of multilateral treaties had any withdrawals. As most treaty exits are concentrated in a small number of treaties, the risk of knock-on effects is a real concern. When Canada withdrew from Kyoto, for example, it cited US non-participation as a justification.

Given how badly the US is behaving on climate policy, it is tempting to argue that it needs some time out from Paris until it’s ready to play nicely with the other kids again. But the fallout from US withdrawal could last far longer than a one- or two-term Republican presidency.

Withdrawal from Paris would signal, more emphatically than domestic inaction alone, that a major polluter is ready to turn its back on the international consensus that a 2℃ warmer world should be avoided. That would be bad, not just for international cooperation on climate change, but also for the broader project of multilateralism.

Thanks to Christian Downie, John Dryzek, Mark Howden, Luke Kemp (whom the author debated at an event held by the ANU Climate Change Institute), Peter Lawrence and Jeff McGee for insightful and lively discussions on this topic.

Editor’s Note

This article was first published by The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

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Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jun 2, 2017

“Withdrawal from Paris would signal, more emphatically than domestic inaction alone, that a major polluter is ready to turn its back on the international consensus that a 2℃ warmer world should be avoided. That would be bad, not just for international cooperation on climate change, but also for the broader project of multilateralism.”

The COP-21 is a folly, because the CO2 emission reductions are about 100 times too little to achieve 2 C.

COP-21 is a non-binding, CO2 emission reduction agreement, which aims to limit the world temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level during the 1861 – 1880 period. By 2015, the increase was about 1.1 C. That leaves just 0.9 C to go. This may appear minor, but is not, as any CO2 emitted today would not have a GW impact until many years later.

Based on present CO2 emission, population growth, and economic growth trends, the 2 C increase likely would be reached by about 2045, and a 4.3 C increase likely would be reached by 2100, based on the MIT and Lomberg analyses.

Future Impact of COP-21 on World Temperature: MIT claims, with FULL implementation of the voluntary, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) agreed to during the COP-21 conference, and kept in place till 2100, COP-21 would prevent about 0.2 C of any warming that would occur by 2100, i.e., instead of 4.3 C from pre-industrial baseline, it would be 4.1 C by 2100. See Page 2 of MIT URL. Bjorn Lomberg estimates COP-21 would prevent about 0.17 C, in close agreement with the MIT estimate.

That means the agreed COP-21 emission reduction would be grossly insufficient. In fact, the COP-21 emission reduction would have to be increased by about a factor of 100 to achieve the 2 C target, according to Bjorn Lomberg. Based on outcomes of about a dozen prior COPs, the RE investments required for such a huge CO2 emission reduction likely will not take place. See Lomberg URL. Energy %26 Climate Outlook.pdf

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jun 4, 2017

1) The US does not need to be in any COP-21

Energy Efficiency Better For CO2 Reduction Than Wind and Solar Build-outs:

It would be much more cost-effective for the US to concentrate on:

– Increasing the energy efficiency of existing buildings.
– Requiring “zero-net-energy”, and “energy-surplus” of all NEW buildings.
– Increasing the mileage of the vehicle population.

These measures would reduce the energy bills of households and businesses, and likely would reduce CO2 emissions by at least 50%, with:

– Minimal government regulations, taxes, fees and surcharges.
– Minimal capital cost.
– Near-zero visual and other adverse impacts.

2) The US should immediately start a major build-out of nuclear plants.

Huge Nuclear Build-Outs Are Needed:

Such RE build-outs will never happen, unless massive nuclear plant capacity, MW, is built, and that capacity would have to provide about 70% of all world energy (not just electrical energy) to replace fossil fuels with syn-fuels, plus generate about 70% of the world’s electricity. Modern renewables (wind, solar, hydro, etc.) would provide the other 30% of all world energy. At present modern renewables provide about 10%. See below table.

NOTE: France generates about 80% of its electricity with nuclear plants, equivalent to about 35% of its primary energy. France has the lowest electric rates in west Europe.

3) Obama, without permission from the US Congress, committed $3 billion to a Green Climate Fund to literally buy the votes of poor countries, so they would commit to COP-21. Some of these countries are among the most corrupt in the world. That money will disappear into Swiss bank accounts, instead of being used for COP-21 goals, as there is NO monitoring mechanism in place. Obama paid $1 billion to the Fund just before Trump was sworn in. Because the US is leaving COP-21, the other $2 billion STAYS IN THE US. See URL for full transcript of COP-21 withdrawal announcement.

NOTE: The Fund has a goal of raising $100 billion EACH YEAR by 2020. As at 17 May 2017, a total of $10.3 billion had been pledged. EU member states pledged $4.7 billion, US $3 billion, and Rest of World $2.6 billion.

The Green Climate Fund is intended to take in $100 BILLION per year starting in 2020. The US being about 20% of gross world product, would likely be hit up for $20 billion per year.

No thank you, said Trump. He was not about to let the UN do boondoggle projects with US taxpayer money.

If the world is making so little progress towards RE, then the US, “doing its RE part” by staying with COP-21, would be engaging in an expensive exercise in futility.

All is explained in this article:

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