Paris Accord

A lot of hot air

Print edition : July 07, 2017

President Donald Trump announcing the decision, in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 1. Photo: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

The coal-fired Plant Scherer in Juliette, Georgia, U.S. It is one of the top carbon dioxide emitters in the U.S. Photo: BRANDEN CAMP/AP

President Trump’s speech announcing the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change was short on facts, and he took the opportunity to take potshots at India and China.

“WE are getting out.” With these words United States President Donald Trump on June 1 ended speculation about how and when the leader of the world’s largest democracy would put his presidential campaign rhetoric of quitting the Paris Agreement on climate change into an executive decision. The announcement was, therefore, not surprising.

That it was coming soon had become apparent when the G7 leaders issued a joint communique at the Taormina Summit in Italy on May 27. Only a few minutes before it was released, Trump had tweeted: “I will make my final decision on the Paris Accord next week!” The communique, in which six other heads of state and the European Union (E.U.) reaffirmed their commitment to climate change action, said: “The USA is in the process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris Agreement and thus is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics.”

Under U.S. law, the President, acting on bestowed executive authority or by an Act of the Congress, can annul the U.S’ participation in an international agreement regardless of how it became party to the agreement. This is not the first time that the U.S. is pulling out of an international climate agreement. It withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that emerging economies did not have quantified emission targets. The argument now is that the Paris Agreement is unfair to the U.S. and its people.

“[I]n order to fulfil my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens,” Trump said in his White House statement of June 1, “the United States will withdraw from the Paris Accord… but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris Accord or [to build] a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States…. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.”

Pure theatre

Technically, the U.S. cannot withdraw from the agreement for a period of three years from the date on which it came into force. The agreement, which was negotiated by 195 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on December 12, 2015, in Paris, came into force on November 4, 2016, just five days before Trump was declared President-elect. Also, according to Article 28.2 of the agreement, even if the Trump administration were to submit a written notification on withdrawal to the U.N. Secretary-General on the very day of expiry of the three-year period, the notification could take effect only after a year from that date, which means that a U.S. withdrawal can take effect at the earliest on November 4, 2020. But the next round of U.S. presidential elections would have got under way the day before. So, even if Trump wants to return to the negotiating table, it can only be under the next U.S. government. This grand announcement to the world is, therefore, pure theatre.

No to starting all over

More significantly, none of the 148 countries (of 195) that have ratified the agreement to date is even remotely interested in renegotiating it. In fact, from the statements of various leaders, including close allies of the U.S., it is clear that no one wants to start all over again. Indeed, there is all-round reaffirmation of strong support for the agreement, which, in any case, is already much diluted from the original foundational principles and intent of the UNFCCC that were articulated when climate negotiations began two and half decades ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

But what is of significance from the perspective of keeping global warming below an increase of 2 °C by the year 2100—the main goal of the agreement—is not so much the technicality of the U.S.’ withdrawal but the impact of the U.S. not implementing even the weak commitments (called the Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) it has made under the agreement. Since even without a formal withdrawal, pledges under the Paris Agreement are voluntary and non-binding, this was a matter of concern at the 12-day 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) to the UNFCCC in Marrakesh, Morocco, in November 2016. The COP22 began just two days before the impending Trump victory and three days after the agreement came into force. In fact, in January 2014, long before his election campaign started, Trump tweeted: “This very expensive global warming bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice.”

“Thus, as of today,” Trump said on June 1, “the U.S. will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the Agreement imposes on our country and, very importantly, the Green Climate Fund [GCF] which is costing the U.S. a vast fortune.” But soon after he assumed office, Trump had already set in motion the rollback of several federal policies and regulations put in place by the Barack Obama administration to meet the NDC obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Having bent over backwards to accommodate the U.S. since COP15 in 2009 in Copenhagen, all other Parties to the convention now have egg on their faces with this denouement of the U.S.’ farcical participation in climate negotiations. They yielded to the U.S.’ manipulations to serve its selfish interests and accepted its proposal of a weak, bottom-up and legally non-binding architecture, where every party says “I will do what I can”, and let the earlier Kyoto Protocol’s top-down and legally binding framework put in place in 1997 fall by the wayside.

In a bid to ensure that the U.S. remained at the negotiating table, the parties yielded to the many concessions it pushed through and ended up with an agreement in Paris that had virtually abandoned the basic tenets of the UNFCCC itself, which requires that developed economies—on whom the historical responsibility rests for causing disproportionate carbon emissions during industrialisation (accounting for 77 per cent of historical emissions) and the consequent global warming—should bear the larger share of mitigation and the financial burden in the present global fight against climate change. Now the U.S., which until recently was the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), has quietly walked out, leaving other countries to carry the increased mitigation burden that Trump has put on them. With China’s rapid growth in renewables and its carbon emissions showing significant slowing down, the U.S. under Trump may well re-emerge as the world’s biggest polluter.

The Paris Agreement, Trump declared, disadvantaged the U.S. “to the exclusive benefit of other countries…. The bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the U.S.” Nothing can be further from truth considering that the U.S. was the chief architect of the underlying framework of the Paris Agreement. Moreover, whatever commitments it had made under the agreement were totally voluntary, were in no way “imposed” on it, and are very weak in any case.

According to its pledges, the U.S. will reduce its carbon emissions from 2005 levels by a mere 26-28 per cent by 2025. But what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) demands of developed countries, on the basis of science that takes into account historical, current and future emissions, is 25-40 per cent reduction below 1990 levels if GHG concentrations in the atmosphere are to stabilise so that the temperature increase is limited to 2 °C, the guardrail to prevent the catastrophic consequences of climate change.

From 1990 to 2005, U.S. emissions actually rose by 17 per cent, making its Paris commitments just 9-11 per cent from 1990 levels. In comparison, the E.U. made a commitment of “at least 40 per cent” reduction from 1990 levels. In reality, therefore, the U.S. is greatly advantaged compared with the E.U. If Trump wanted to scale down the U.S’ commitments, he could have done so without making the grandiose pronouncement of withdrawal from the agreement, which is a non-starter.

Historically, the U.S. is the largest contributor to climate change, responsible for 21 per cent of the accumulated stock of carbon in the atmosphere. It is the second-largest contributor (with 14.34 per cent share, after China’s 29.51 per cent) to the current flow of global carbon emissions. It is also well known that with the current Paris pledges, the global temperature rise by the end of century will be about 3.3 °C, which means countries need to ramp up their commitments a great deal more, not lower them.

Financial commitment

Trump referred to the financial commitments under the GCF required of developed economies as a “draconian burden”. The financial implication of the Paris Accord on developed countries is an annual contribution totalling to a baseline figure of $100 billion a year to assist developing countries to fight the consequences of global warming and climate change, which are not of their making. But GCF contributions to date have been $10.3 billion, just one-tenth of the baseline figure. Of this, the U.S. had committed $3 billion but has so far contributed only $1 billion.

When viewed in per capita terms, the U.S. pledge, far from being a “vast fortune”, ranks 11th in the list of contributing developed countries. According to GCF data, the U.S’ pledge works out to only $9.41 compared with Japan’s $11.8, the United Kingdom’s $18.77 and Sweden’s $59.31, which tops the list. The amount of $1 billion already paid in to the GCF works out to just $3 per capita, which is a little more than South Korea’s $2. In his federal budget, Trump has already removed funding for the UNFCCC and the GCF, which means the U.S. will not add to the $1 billion that it has already contributed.

On economic costs to and lost jobs in the U.S. owing to the Paris Agreement, Trump quoted highly suspect figures from a study of a well-known right-wing organisation called the National Economic Research Associates (NERA). Some time back, NERA published studies for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an organisation representing the interests of the coal industry, and reports against the Clean Air Act and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. These reports projected huge economic and job losses in the U.S. and have been freely used by climate change deniers, fossil fuel lobbies and Republican politicians to further their agenda against any kind of domestic climate change regulatory action by the U.S.

Another gem from the Trump speech is his claim that even if all nations implemented their commitments under the Paris Agreement to the full it would produce only the “tiny, tiny amount” of 0.2 °C reduction in global temperature by 2100. The truth, however, according to projections by the IPCC, is that global warming will shoot up by more than 5 °C if it is business as usual. The agreement seeks to pull it back below 2 °C, but given the extremely unambitious emission reduction commitments by most developed countries, all the pledges will limit the increase to only about 3 °C. This is still a reduction of 2 °C and not just 0.2 °C as Trump would like the world to believe.

Statements against India and China

Having once called climate change a conspiracy and hoax perpetrated by China, he found in his June 1 speech another opportunity to make sweeping and false statements about China and India. “For example,” Trump claimed, “under the agreement, China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years, 13. They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us. India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries…. China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement. India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020…. We’re supposed to get rid of ours.”

What are the facts? Under the convention, emissions from developing countries are allowed to grow to meet their development goals but at a rate that progressively slows down, peaks and then declines. China has projected 2030 as its peaking year, but all indications are that emissions are likely to peak much earlier than that. As regards India, it has never said that its mitigation commitments under its stated NDCs would be conditional on receiving foreign money. In fact, India has already put in place many actions towards emissions reduction, and these have been funded entirely from the nation’s own resources.

Ten days before Trump made his unfounded claims about India and China, T he New York Times said in an editorial: “Until recently, China and India have been cast as obstacles, at the very least reluctant conscripts, in the battle against climate change. That reputation looks very much out-of-date now that both countries have greatly accelerated their investments in cost-effective renewable energy sources—and reduced their reliance on fossil fuels. It’s America—Donald Trump’s America—that now looks like the laggard…. [T]he tangible progress by the world’s number one producer of greenhouse gases (China) and its number three (India) are astonishing… and worth celebrating.”

Climate Action Tracker

A new study on China, India and the U.S. by Climate Action Tracker (CAT), which was released in Bonn, Germany, on May 15, provides the quantitative basis to this editorial perspective. “China’s coal consumption,” the CAT study summary said, “has declined in three consecutive years (2013 to 2016), and the outlook is for a continued slow decline. India has stated that planned coal-fired power plants may not be needed and with announced policies—if fully implemented—it would see a significant slowing down in the growth of CO2 emissions over the next decade. Both China and India look set to overachieve their Paris Agreement climate pledges…. This stands in contrast to the decisions of the U.S. administration under President Trump, who appears intent on going in the opposite direction.”

“Together,” the summary added, “the positive developments in India and China have a significant impact on the projected growth global of GHG emissions—on the order of a roughly 2-3 GtCO2 [billion tons of CO2] reduction in 2030 compared to projections made just last year. They significantly outweigh the potentially negative effects on emissions from the Trump Administration’s proposed rollbacks in the USA of around 0.4 GtCO2 in 2030.”

It further noted: “[India’s] new Draft Energy Plan—issued in December 2016—projects that despite the increasing electricity demand, no new coal-fired power plants, apart from those that are already under construction, would be needed after 2022…. As a result, the Draft Energy Plan predicts an electricity capacity from renewables by 2027 as high as 57 per cent, which is much higher than the 40 per cent by 2030 stated in the Indian NDC to the Paris Agreement. If the Draft Energy Plan is implemented, we estimate that emissions in 2030 in India would be around 1.0 GtCO2 lower than our estimate of currently implemented policies. This moves India closer to what is necessary to achieve the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.”

“China,” the CAT summary statement said, “is set to overachieve its contribution to the Paris Agreement by a wide margin. With continued coal abatement, total GHG emissions are likely to be around 1 to 2 GtCO2 lower in 2030 compared to our previous estimate…. China is accelerating its pace of limiting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and moving closer to what is necessary to achieve the Paris long-term temperature limit although a gap still remains.” Despite all this data about China and India before him, Trump went ahead and made absurd charges against them.

Overturning policy objectives

Since Trump took office, the U.S’ objectives for climate policy at the federal level articulated under the Obama administration have been completely overturned. In January 2017, Trump announced his “America First Energy Plan” under which he said that he would eliminate “burdensome regulations on our energy industry” and promised to revive the U.S. coal industry. On March 28, Trump issued an “Executive Order [EO] on Energy Independence” on the basis of which he started the process of “suspending, revising and rescinding” many policies and initiatives that had been put in place to reduce fossil fuel consumption and GHG emissions, including the Clean Power Plan (CPP). He also repealed Obama’s Climate Action Plan. It had provided an overarching guidance framework for U.S. climate policy. A number of measures had already been implemented, including fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, efficiency improvements in the building sector, and hydrofluorocarbon emission reductions. “With activities set in motion by the Trump administration,” the CAT statement said, “the USA is likely to fail to meet its NDC by a wide margin.”

The CPP is a regulation that aims to bring down carbon emissions from the power sector by 32 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. It was key to Obama’s strategy to meet U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement. Trump has also eliminated funding for the CPP. In response to the EO, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency has given notice that it is reviewing the CPP and, if appropriate, will take steps to revise or revoke it. If it is scrapped and is not offset by other commensurate actions, U.S. emissions by 2025 will be higher by 3.4 per cent, observed the CAT study.

As Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, remarked in his June 5 article “Why Trump Pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord” in the journal Foreign Affairs: “Truly, Trump’s decision to withdraw the nation from the Paris climate agreement was not based on science or sound economics, but on a confused, misguided, and simply dishonest desire to score some short-term political points with his voters. What he sacrifices in the long term will be immensely more difficult for the country to win back at the ballot box: authority, credibility, and influence.”

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