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Withdrawal Exposes Weakness of the Paris Climate Agreement

Geoffrey Styles's picture
GSW Strategy Group, LLC

Geoffrey Styles is Managing Director of GSW Strategy Group, LLC, an energy and environmental strategy consulting firm. Since 2002 he has served as a consultant and advisor, helping organizations...

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When President Trump announced last week that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, he unleashed a flood of condemnation. Foreign leaders, US politicians, corporate executives, and environmental groups all roundly criticized the move. It also hasn’t polled well.

As the initial reaction dies down, it’s worth considering how this happened, what it means, and what might come next. The invaluable Axios news site has some noteworthy insights on the latter problem that I will get to shortly.

I am convinced it was a mistake to withdraw. In this I share the view of many current and former business leaders, including the Secretary of State, that the US was better off as a party to the deal and all the future negotiations it entails. Even if the goal was truly to renegotiate the agreement on more favorable terms, signaling withdrawal first seems counterproductive. However, I also see the consequences of our withdrawal in less catastrophic terms than most critics of the move.

As I noted not long after it was concluded, the Paris Agreement is by design much weaker than its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol. Although the 2015 Paris deal was probably the strongest one that could have been negotiated at the time, it still represented a big compromise between developed and developing countries on who should reduce the bulk of future emissions and who should bear the responsibility for the consequences of past emissions. Its text is full of verbs like recognize, acknowledge, encourage, etc., and the commitments it collected were essentially voluntary.

The agreement was also explicitly negotiated so as to maximize its chances of being enacted under the executive powers of the US president, without his having to refer the agreement to the US Senate for its concurrence. That implied it could be undone in the same way.

In other words, President Obama took a calculated risk that his successor(s) would choose to be bound by his Executive Order endorsing Paris. That was tantamount to a bet on his party winning the 2016 election, since most of the Republicans who had announced at the time were opposed to it, or the Clean Power Plan that was the linchpin of future US compliance with it.

Seeking Senate approval as a treaty would have been a much bigger lift–or required an even weaker agreement–but success would have provided significant political protection for the follow-on to the unratified Kyoto Protocol. Perhaps that explains why President Trump has chosen the much slower exit path–up to three years–provided within the Paris Agreement, rather than the quicker route of pulling out of the umbrella UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Convention was signed by President George H.W. Bush with the bipartisan advise and consent of the Senate in 1992.

Setting politics aside, it’s also not obvious that US withdrawal from Paris will put our greenhouse gas emissions on a significantly different track than if we stayed in. Even the EPA’s review and likely withdrawal of its previous Clean Power Plan, which underpinned the Obama administration’s strategy for meeting the voluntary goal it submitted at Paris, may have only a minor impact on global emissions.

Federal climate policy has not been the main driver of recent emissions reductions in the US power sector. Cheap, abundant natural gas from shale and the rapid adoption of renewable energy under state “renewable portfolio standards“, supported by federal tax credits that were extended again in 2015, have been the primary factors in overall US emissions falling by 11% since 2005. These trends look set to continue.

The bigger question is what happens globally with the US out of the Paris Agreement–assuming the administration does not reverse course again before it can issue the required formal notice to withdraw roughly 2 1/2 years from now.

At least in the short term, I doubt much else will change. For the most part, the Nationally Determined Commitments delivered at Paris reflected what the signatories intended to do anyway. China’s NDC is a perfect example. That country’s ongoing air pollution crisis provides ample incentive to scale back on energy intensity and coal-fired power plants, which are the main source of its emissions.

Increasing the role of renewable energy in its national energy mix perfectly suits China’s ambitions in renewable energy technology. Exhibit A for that is a solar manufacturing sector that went from insignificance to more than 50% of the global supply of photovoltaic (PV) cells in under a decade, while China’s domestic market accounted for 21% of global PV installations through 2015.

The reactions to last week’s announcement surely raised the stakes for other countries that might consider leaving. However, this action has also provided China and other high-emitting developing countries with an ironic mirror image of one of the main arguments on which the US government based its unwillingness to implement the Kyoto Protocol.

What ought to matter more than any of the domestic and geopolitical maneuvering around the US exit is the actual impact on the global climate. Reporting on Axios, Amy Harder (formerly of the Wall St. Journal) portrayed this as a sort of emperor’s clothes moment with a column entitled, “Climate change is here to stay, so deal with it.” Monday’s main Axios “stream” characterized her piece as a “truth bomb.”

As Harder put it, “The chances of reversing climate change are slim regardless of US involvement in the Paris agreement.” That’s consistent with recent assessments from the International Energy Agency and others. Citing the Bipartisan Policy Center and the UN, her column suggested a pivot to greater focus on adaptation, the hard and deeply unglamorous work of bolstering infrastructure and systems to withstand changes in the climate, including those that are already baked in. Attributing the source of changes in rainfall and sea level matters less than plugging the resulting physical gaps. That makes adaptation politically less toxic than cutting emissions, though still plenty challenging, fiscally.

As I have been watching the fallout from last week’s news, I keep coming back to comparisons to the Cold War that I made when the idea of pursuing climate policy through executive action was emerging in 2010. Like the Cold War, dealing with climate change requires a similarly enduring bipartisan coalition. Major policy swings every 4 or 8 years are just too costly and ineffective, due to the planning horizons involved.

NATO may be going through a difficult moment, but it is approaching its 70th year. After seeing its key weakness exposed, can anyone honestly look at the framework of the Paris Agreement and conclude that it is likely to last as long? Yet if climate change is as serious as many suggest, those are exactly the terms in which we should be thinking.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on Jun 7, 2017

The chances of reversing climate change are slim regardless of US involvement in the Paris agreement.

Jeff, I submit, perhaps not well but nevertheless, the reduction, reuse and recycling of the heat of global warming to useful work does reverse climate change”

Add to the mix fact that the current environmental cost of business is $4.7 trillion annually it behooves us to take “effective” measures.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 8, 2017

Geoffrey, you write

Like the Cold War, dealing with climate change requires a similarly enduring bipartisan coalition.

Who are the two parties in either example? Not getting your analogy. And:

Cheap, abundant natural gas from shale and the rapid adoption of renewable energy under state “renewable portfolio standards“…have been the primary factors in overall US emissions falling by 11% since 2005…

Not so. Your 11% emissions “reductions” are entirely attributable to outsourcing our emissions to other countries:

The United States is both a major importer and a major exporter of emissions embodied in trade. The net result is that the U.S. outsources about 11 percent (about 2.4 tons per person annually) of total consumption-based emissions, primarily to the developing world.

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on Jun 8, 2017

Obama is to blame for the Clean Power Plan which is so complex no one understands it. The CPP substituted for the EPA’s first proposal, in the first term, which was very simple: no new power plants emitting more than 454 g-CO2 per kWh generated.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Jun 8, 2017

Yoshi, thanks for commenting. My own Sweden is generally fairly disciplined, but when we in the 90-ies decided to phase out nuclear by 2010, the date just came and went with the commitment still on the books until more or less the last minute. I’m glad it wasn’t pursued, since I think our nuclear power is such a great success, but I think the climate commitments too will fade when the dates close in and too much effort remains.

I think the current non-binding climate agreement is ineffective, but the former approach wasn’t realistic either. Binding reduction targets creates a tug-of-war between different countries such as current major emitters and poorer developing nations. Nobody wants to come home as the loser of the negotiations, and nobody wants to forfeit national prosperity.

There seems to be a simple solution: National carbon taxes with a globally agreed floor. When you agree to pay to yourself, you aren’t a loser. Indeed, this tax could provide a stable tax base to some countries having difficulties raising revenue for government services. Other countries could just hand back the money to the people through tax rebates. Any country that wants to do more could just have a higher tax than the floor. And every climate summit would just be a discussion on how much the global floor should be raised. One simple figure, easy to understand negotiations, easy to keep governments accountable for failure to act.

I’m curious if you know whether this approach has been seriously discussed, and what you think the major obstacles is or would be.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Jun 8, 2017

Not so. Your 11% emissions “reductions” are entirely attributable to outsourcing our emissions to other countries:

Care to show this? AFAIK, the coal change-out with gas and some wind is real and significant.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jun 8, 2017

@BobMeinetz @Geoffrey

The Caldiera-Davis PNAS paper is an analysis of exported emissions at a moment in time (2004) not a change in emissions over time, which is the topic of the EPA CO2 emissions data from 2005-2015 referenced by Geoffrey Styles. Several US domestic emissions changes occurred over the same period which are not tradeable: reduction of new model year vehicles from 450 g-CO2/mile to 350 g-CO2/mile, reduction of 362 million tons CO2 electric power emissions via a switch from coal and oil to gas or noncarbon sources. Reductions like these would change over time, for instance, the US energy intensity and embodied energy 2004 figures used by Caldiera-Davis.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jun 8, 2017

Natural gas 117 lb CO2/million Btu, or 53118 g CO2/million Btu

CCGT, 60% efficient, 3412/0.60 = 5687 Btu/kWh,

5687/1000000 x 53118 = 302 g CO2/kWh

302/454 = 0.67 X 0.60 = 39.9

That means the CCGT plant could have an efficiency of as low as 39.9% and still qualify.


CCGT, 39.9% efficiency, 3412/0.399 = 8551 Btu/kWh

8551/1000000 x 53118 = 454g CO2/kWh

Coal would not qualify, and wood, if considered not renewable within 30-50 years, would also not qualify.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jun 8, 2017


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 Lomborg 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 by 2100, according to Bjorn Lomborg. 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 Lomborg URL. Energy %26 Climate Outlook.pdf

Many people think we can have 90% of ALL primary energy from renewables for 10 billion people and their economies by 2050, or by 2100. Prorating the $33 billion cost of Vermont’s energy transformation* for 10 billion people would be $33 b x 10000/0.625 = $528 trillion, adjusting for per capita income would be 12,380/47,000 x 528 = $139 trillion.
* The Vermont goal is 90% of ALL primary energy from renewables by 2050, not just electrical energy.

NOTE: The gross world product was about $78 trillion, or $78 trillion/6.3 b = $12,380/capita, in 2014. Vermont’s GDP/capita was about $47,000 in 2015.

World Spending on RE is Grossly Inadequate for COP-21 Goals: World spending on renewables was about $300 billion in 2015, of which about $100 billion by China. Some RE people, during and after COP-21, called for RE spending to be increased to $1.0 trillion/y. The numbers indicate the world is under-spending by large factors.

– $139 trillion/34 y = $4.09 trillion/y would be required until 2050; under-spending factor of 13.6
– $139 trillion/84 y = $1.65 trillion/y would be required until 2100; under-spending factor of 5.5…

However, significant categories of costs are not included in above estimates, such as having a transformed transportation system and other infrastructures, various transformed industries, healthcare systems, defense systems, education systems, etc., all that to be transformed with renewable energy, which is generally more expensive than traditional energy sources, if storage and grid costs are added and subsidies are taken away.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 9, 2017

I agree that the most significant aspect of the Paris Agreement is the fact that so many nations agreed that reducing CO2 emissions is important.

However, I find it unrealistic that anyone expected the US or any other fossil fuel rich nation to take the lead in actually doing anything meaningful about it.

The only plausible path to deep reductions in global CO2 emissions is completely dependent on the leadership of the fossil fuel importing countries. As soon as you have blazed a trail to an economical solution, we’ll follow you (with a delay of 20 years or so).

Of course I am disappointed in the US’s lack of action. But at least we are honestly displaying our inner conflict. Other countries make grand promises, then spend the years flip-flopping from pilot programs in one carbon-free any source to another, while maintaining fossil fuels as their primary energy sources.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Jun 9, 2017

Well, to me it looks that the attitude in U.S. foreign politics is notw U.S. against the rest of the world, seeking win-loose deals. Which is not wise.
But looking at brexit, and even more how it is handeled in UK, unwise politics seems to be popular in many places.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jun 9, 2017

Ambassador Nishimura,
Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post. I understand your argument but tend to see the future attainment of carbon neutrality, whenever that might occur, as less an outcome of Paris than of technological developments arising from countries–Japan, the US, China or others?–seeking future economic advantage.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jun 9, 2017

Apologies for not making my analogy clearer. The context is US politics: a coalition of Democrats and Republicans maintained a relatively stable set of policies on defense and relations with the Soviet Union across multiple decades, and I see the need for a similar coalition of D’s and R’s if the US is going to mount a sustainable response to climate change across the decades required.

Re embedded emissions, I’m well aware of this but find the accounting quite challenging. If those same goods had been produced domestically (all of them, or just enough to achieve a zero-net-trade balance?) the embodied emissions would likely be much lower than simply tallying up the CO2 output in China and elsewhere for the same goods.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 12, 2017

Geoffrey, without getting neck-deep in politics, not sure either D’s, R’s, or both together are up to the task. Since Citizens United, both have become reps of big business, and being guardians of the environment has always cost more money than not.

Until corporations can vote, until they can fight our wars, until they can suffer the effects of climate change and poisonous air and water, they are not people. If the Supreme Court can’t reverse that obscene conclusion of Citizens United, all bets are off.

Re: emissions, good point. American production is no doubt cleaner than Chinese for the same output – and in truth, any attempt to accurately account for emissions quickly becomes an exercise in futility. Any argument can be advanced or refuted by exploiting what might be called “Death by a Thousand Assumptions”.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 12, 2017

Ambassador Nishimura, thanks for commenting.

I don’t believe anyone is laughing at the intent or sense of purpose behind Paris. I and others doubt the efficacy of an agreement with immediate financial commitments but no perceptible results for decades into the future. In the U.S., we’re watching as our Environmental Protection Agency is deemed irrelevant not fifty years after its creation. The EPA, since 1970, can be credited for sweeping improvements to air and water quality and for maintaining them to this day.

NATO was signed in 1949 by nations which faced an immediate threat from the Soviet Union. Though the USSR is gone, Russia maintains the imperialist policies of its predecessor. It continues to threaten Europe, so NATO remains relevant.Thus I’m not sure it’s an appropriate analogue for Paris.

The responsibility for taking the lead in addressing climate change falls squarely on the shoulders of the United States. As one of the wealthiest nations and one which generates a disproportionate share of per-capita carbon emissions, it would be foolish to miscast who is responsible for the precarious state of climate in 2017. The U.S. must lead by example. If we joined in the Paris agreement, I worry it would create a sense of false security in the short term – that the U.S. would remain complacent, and not act with the immediacy necessary to get results. Because we only get one chance, I hope I’m wrong.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jun 12, 2017

I agree that the most significant aspect of the Paris Agreement is the fact that so many nations agreed that reducing emissions is important

Actions are definitive about what nations agree to, legally binding treaties less so, and paper signed in Paris not at all.

There’s no more reason to believe that, say, Syria’s Assad cares about emissions because of Paris than that Hitler would not invade Russia due to Molotov-Ribbentrop.

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