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Possible Outcomes after the US Exit from the Paris Climate Agreement

Dr Rajeesh Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 06, 2017

    Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement will be a real setback to the future of global climate negotiations. Even when Trump had tweeted a few days earlier that “I will make my decision on the Paris Accord next week!”, the world was still hopeful that he would not take such a drastic decision. However, his choice became clear at the G-7 Summit, where he refused to yield to pressure from his European allies to support the landmark deal on climate change. Trump's decision to pull out of the Agreement not only jeopardises the fate of the deal but the future of humanity as well. Experts note that the US exit will have devastating effects on our already ravaged climate.

    The Paris Agreement, which endeavours to cap global warming at below 2C, was signed by 195 nations on December 12, 2015. On November 4, 2016, the agreement came into force, and 147 signatories, including the United States, have ratified it. The agreement intends to enhance the ability of countries to deal with the consequences of climate change and requests all Parties to do this through 'nationally determined contributions' (NDCs). As a result, Parties to the Agreement are obliged to report periodically on their emissions and implementation efforts.

    Why did Trump Pull Out?

    Many reasons have been given for Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. The first relates to the US economy, which is evident in Trump’s statement that “the agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States and it had disadvantaged the US to the exclusive benefit of other countries leaving American businesses and taxpayers to absorb the cost.”1 Trump believes that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”2 Announcing the decision to withdraw from the Agreement, Trump complained about the unequal treatment meted out to the US in the pact. He said: “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.”3

    It is argued that if the US implements the regulations to comply with the Agreement, it will severely affect the carbon-based industries in America and, consequently, its economy and quality of life. According to the Heritage Foundation, implementing the Paris agreement would result in “increased U.S. electricity expenditures of 15-20 percent over the next decade, 400,000 fewer American jobs, a total income loss of over $30,000 for an American family of four, and a loss of over $2.5 trillion in U.S. gross domestic product.”4 Exiting the agreement will also help Trump withdraw from the multilateral financial commitments made by his predecessor. At Paris, the Obama government had not only promised a 28 percent cut in US greenhouse emissions by 2025 but also pledged USD three billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which aims to help developing countries deal with global warming. In his ‘America first' budget blueprint in March 2017, Trump proposed a 20 percent cut in US funding to the UN climate body, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

    The second factor in Trump’s decision is pressure from the coal lobby as well as from advisors. Like Trump, many in the White House believe that the Paris Agreement is “a bad deal for the US” and further that climate science itself is “a deliberate misinformation.” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chief Scott Pruitt, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are some of the prominent climate change deniers in the Trump administration. They also believe that the Paris deal is one-sided and that “the U.S. is shouldering the burden of billions of dollars whereas countries like China, India, and Russia will contribute nothing.”5 In April 2017, when he visited Harvey Mine in Pennsylvania, a part of Bailey Mine Complex, the US’ largest underground mine, Scott Pruitt talked about the “Back to Basics” agenda of the Trump administration against Obama’s “Clean Power Plan.”Since taking office, Trump has signed several executive orders with the intention of revising the previous administration's environmental policies. Rolling back of regulations on carbon emissions from power plants, and amending the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, which protects waterways from coal mining waste, are some of the environmentally destructive measures that the Trump Administration has taken in this regard. In addition, by pulling out from the Paris Agreement, Trump aims to unravel Obama’s signature multilateral policies. From the very beginning, Trump along with other Republican leaders had opposed and attempted to reverse Obama's multilateral pledges, terming them as impractical.

    Exit Will Not Be Easy

    However, exit from the Paris Agreement would not be easy for Trump. The first reason is technical. According to the provisions of the Paris Agreement, no country shall be allowed to exit the deal before three years after its entry into force. Moreover, the actual process of withdrawal, which begins after three years, would take one more year to complete. Hence, if Trump decides to pull out of the deal now, the process will continue until 2020. Here, an easy but costly option for Trump would be to withdraw from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which would take one year or less. However, this would take the US out of all climate-related negotiations and affect its soft power in such issue areas forever. Though the US cannot claim all the credit for producing the Paris agreement, the Obama administration was widely seen as a decisive force behind the pact. As a result, many countries accepted the US as the champion of climate change negotiations. With Trump's declaration, global goodwill for the US as an international negotiating partner was doused overnight.6

    Furthermore, such a move would also intensify American public opinion against the current dispensation in the White House. In contrast to Trump, a majority of Americans think that climate change is a reality and they trust the prognostications made by climate scientists. According to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is occurring and that it will harm future generations and plants and animals as well.7 Around 75 percent of people support strict CO2 regulation policies and CO2 limits on existing coal power plants.8 Interestingly, more than six in ten Trump voters back taxing and regulating pollution that causes global warming.9

    In addition to domestic opposition, the China factor also makes an exit from the Paris deal costlier for Trump. A prominent group of Trump advisors, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, hold the view that if the US leaves the agreement, China will fill that vacuum. Chinese Premier Le Keqiang’s statements in Berlin that “fighting climate change is a global responsibility” and that “China will stand by its responsibilities on climate change” are an indication of how Beijing is going to step in and fill the void left by the US. Le’s visit to Germany also points to a looming China-EU axis of cooperation on this issue. To get a clearer picture, one needs to read Le’s comment alongside the statements of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Miguel Arias Canete, the European Union Commissioner on Climate Change. In her meeting with the Chinese Premier, Merkel said: “the cooperation of the European Union with China in this area will play a crucial role, especially in regards to new technologies.”10 Similarly, Canete said that “No one should be left behind, but the EU and China have decided to move forward. Our successful cooperation on issues like emissions trading and clean technologies are bearing fruit. Now is the time to further strengthen these ties to keep the wheels turning for ambitious global climate action.”11 Moreover, China may take this as an opportunity to emerge as the sole leader of global climate negotiations by supporting the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which faces a budget crisis with the US exit. Stepping up as the leader of climate talks will also be an opportunity for China to reshape its current global image from “illiberal, authoritarian” to a “liberal, responsible global power.”12

    How does it affect India?

    Trump’s withdrawal may not have any direct impact on India; however, it will affect India’s future climate policies with some repercussions on its development projects. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated India's pledges to the Paris accord, it will not be easy for the country to keep its promises intact. India's participation in the agreement was conditional upon receiving financial aid from developed countries to reduce its carbon footprints. India accounts for four percent of global emissions and, at Paris, it promised “to reduce its carbon footprint by 35 percent from its 2005 levels, by 2030.”13 In order to attain this ambitious target, India needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy sources. With Trump’s decision to stop the financial assistance to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the future of India’s renewable energy projects will be in trouble.14

    Another possible effect is India's stake in the future climate negotiations. If China dominates future negotiations, the ongoing tensions between the two nations will have a significant impact on India’s place in such negotiations. However, there is some good news as well for India. First, like for China, for India also the US pull out is an opportunity to lead the future climate change negotiations. Prime Minister Modi’s statement at Elysee Palace in Paris on June 3 —the Paris Agreement reflects “our duty towards protecting the Earth and our natural resources. For us, this is an article of faith” – not only explains India's commitments towards the deal but also manifests India's move to position itself as a leader in sustainable development. Here, India should also expose the hypocrisy of China in investing trillions of dollars in projects such as OBOR and CPEC while at the same time asking for funds from developed countries to meet its emission targets. Second, India could make use of the uncertainty of US renewable energy projects and invest more in its own renewable energy market. To meet its solar targets, India needs around USD 100 billion, and this sector has enormous potential for foreign investments. It will not only boost Prime Minister Modi’s signature policy of ‘Make in India' but could also challenge the Chinese monopoly in solar energy technology.

    Future Scenarios

    A domino effect, prompting other signatories of the accord to leave or reconsider their efforts and expenses of cutting emissions, is the first scenario that emerges when we reflect upon the future of the Paris agreement after the US pull out. The second possibility is exactly opposite to the first. In the absence of the US, which almost always plays a significant role in building multilateral treaties and regimes, other countries may come forward to fill the leadership vacuum. One should also not discount the possibility of Trump pushing for a renegotiation of the Agreement. Chances are higher for such renegotiations since that would be the only win-win option for both the US and the rest of the world. However, such a development would mean global recognition of the fact that the future of climate negotiations will be dark without the US, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter and the major contributor to the Green Climate Fund. And for its part, the Trump administration needs to reconsider its position that climate change is a hoax and instead accept it as reality.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.