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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

Paris Climate Agreement and the US Withdrawal: The Way Forward

Sunday 24 December 2017

by Prashant Kumar Sharma

Background

Climate change has become a global challenge that does not respect any national or international boundary. Every nook and corner of the globe is facing the irreversible impacts of climate change. The impacts of climate change are palpable in terms of changes in extreme weather events, increases in temperature and sea-level rise. All anthropogenic activities, including greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, are driving climate change and these continue to rise. It is a noted fact that emissions anywhere affect people everywhere. This issue requires solutions that need to be co-ordinated at the international level. It further requires international co-operation to help the developing countries move ahead to achieve a low-carbon economy.

International efforts have been continued under the auspices of the United Nations to forge a collective action to combat the daunting challenges of this global problem. Since 1992, all the world’s governments had been pledging to take preventive measures that could avoid dangerous warming of the earth. However, those attempts were marked by ‘discord and fiasco, the refusal of the biggest emitters to take part, ineffective agreements and ignored treaties’.1 Due to these dominant reasons, the Paris talks were largely seen as a ‘make or break’ for the process of the United Nations. The collective global action to forge an agreement would have been at an edge, if the Paris talks had failed, and the world would have been left without any ‘just and robust means’ of dealing with climate change.

Paris Climate Agreement 2015

The Paris Agreement, which has been signed by almost 200 countries, was adopted in COP21 on December 12, 2015. This agreement came into force on November 4, 2016. The adoption of the climate deal was hailed as ‘historic, durable and ambitious’, with the world leaders calling it a ‘major leap for mankind’. French Foreign Minister and President-designate of the COP21 Laurent Fabius, the United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres and Special Ambassador on Climate Change Laurence Tubiana played a vital and pivotal role in facilitating the successful outcome of the Paris talks. This event witnessed the biggest ever gathering of the world leaders, whose presence was, in fact, significant to boost the morale of their negotiators to move out of the positions deeply rooted for more than 20 years. Eventually, the Paris deal proved that compromise could still be worked out to uphold the sustainability of the planet if firm determination exists and prevails on the part of the nations.2

The Paris Agreement3 constitutes 29 Articles, which stipulate in details the measures to be taken to deal with climate change. Article 2 of the said agreement aims as follows:

1) To strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change: a) by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; b) by increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development; c) and to making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development.

2) In addition, the implementation of this agreement would reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

The US Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

The US is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases and largest per capita emitter among industrialised countries.4 The US officially entered the Paris Climate Agreement along with China on September 3, 2016. The US under the presidency of Obama committed to reduce its carbon emissions, by 26 to 28 per cent from the 2005 levels, by 2025.5 The move taken by these countries, most responsible for climate change, was immediately termed as a significant advancement in the battle against climate change.6 US President Obama, on the eve of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, 2016, expressed his belief that the Paris Agreement would definitely prove to be a turning-point for the planet and the efforts they have made would be judged by history as pivotal.7 In addition, he stated that the US and China are leading by example when it comes to fighting climate change.8

Nevertheless, the euphoria of leading the world by example could not last longer. While the Paris Climate Agreement was meant to bind the world community in the global fight against rising temperatures, the withdrawal of the world’s second largest polluter is a major blow.9 President Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Now, the question is: why did President Trump decide to pull the US out of the accord? What were the factors behind influencing Trump’s decision to quit from the accord?

What President Trump did with regard to the Paris Climate Agreement had support from some of the Senate Republicans who were calling for an exit. Those Republicans were Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel of Kentucky and Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, among others.10 In addition, the decision taken by the President Trump was considered a victory for Stephen K. Bannon, the chief strategist of Trump, and Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator. It is noted that these officers spent months quietly to make their case before President Trump about the inherent dangers that the Paris Climate Agreement carries. These officers endeavoured to overcome all the intense oppositions from the other top aides, encompassing Gary D. Cohn, the Director of the National Economic Council, and the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.11

What President Trump is doing is not a new phenomenon. It also has its precedents in the past. For instance, in 1992 at the Earth Summit, US President George H.W. Bush had opined that ‘the Americans’ way of life is non-negotiable’.12 Moreover, the same statement stands true today. President Trump believed that the Paris Accord is very unfair to the US at the highest level.13 Trump called the Paris Agreement a ‘draconian international deal’,14 and opined that the landmark 2015 accord imposed wildly unfair environmental standards on American businesses and workers.15 For Trump, the Paris Accord was an attack on the American sovereignty and ‘a threat to the ability of his Administration to reshape the nation’s environmental laws in ways that benefit everyday Americans’.16 Moreover, Trump thinks that the Paris Accord is a way of ‘massive redistribution of the United States wealth to other countries’.17 Hence, the deal would fundamentally induce disadvantages to the US economically, relative to other countries. Eventually Trump declared: ‘The United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris accord’.18

The Way Forward

The Paris climate deal, which is widely understood as a victory for climate diplomacy, was considered to be the end of a long negotiation to find a working formula for halting arguably the biggest threat to the 21st Century human society emanating from climate change.19 The countries’ national commitments under the Paris Agreement, as research shows, do not meet the trajectory needed to limit global warming to 2 or 1.5°C.20 The current commitments, as far as the caps on emissions are concerned, are likely to lead to warming of 2.7 to 3°C above pre-industrial levels, breaching the 2°C threshold. Scientists believed that 2°C is the limit of safety beyond which the effects would be highly catastrophic and irreversible.21

Recently, the World Meteorological Organi-sation said that ‘concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed in 2016’. It further clarified: ‘Globally averaged concentrations of CO2 reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, up from 400.00 ppm in 2015 because of a combination of human activities and a strong E1Nino event.’ The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, annual flagship report of the UN weather agency, traces ‘the continent of dangerous gases in atmosphere in the post-industrial era (since 1750)’. It is also noted that the earth experienced similar concentrations of CO2 rates in the atmosphere the last time three to five million years ago, at a time when the sea level was up to 20 meetrs (66 feet) higher than now.22

Nevertheless, it has been observed that the lacuna between the climate promise and the emission reduction pledges is ‘alarmingly high’. Most Carbon dioxide, the main gas behind the warming, once emitted stays in the atmosphere for centuries. Therefore, to stop the warming, the world has to bring emissions down to zero as soon as possible. It is due to the fact that how much we emit now and then is going to decide where global temperatures end up. Power stations and other industrial activities continue to add up around 36 billion tons of Carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. Most notably, every ton of emissions will count for further warming.23

Against this backdrop, the departure of the US from the Paris Agreement is a setback to the efforts at building a climate resilient world. However, it is opined, ‘the world should not be held to ransom because the domestic political process of five per cent of the world’s population cannot treat the problem seriously’.24 All major countries have reflected their firm determination to turn the tenets of the Paris Agreement into practice. Countries like India and China have also reaffirmed their commitment to meeting their targets. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for an ‘ecological civilisation reforms’25 to account for the environmental ramifications of China’s development. Moreover, India believes that ‘for the past 5,000 years, it has been the tradition in India to protect the environment’.26

At the COP22 in Morocco, negotiators had decided to fix the year 2018 as the deadline to finalise the guidelines for various processes and requirements needed to implement the Paris Agreement.27 It was also noted that in 2018, parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will come together to take stock of the progress made and ascertain where they can move ahead faster to keep the goals of the Paris Agreement within reach. To make the move in this regard, the COP23 convened in Bonn, Germany, in continuation with the agenda of the previous COP22. The COP23 convened under the Presidency of Fiji that took place from November 6 to 17, 2017 at the World Conference Centre in Bonn. This event made history as ‘the first-ever small island state to hold the Presidency and organise the negotiations’.28

The World Resources Institute (WRI) opines that the parties to the agreement must continue to accelerate their effort to deter the worst impacts of climate change. Moreover, the WRI released a paper titled, Enhancing NDCs by 2020: Achieving the Goals of the Paris Agreement,which highlights a menu of options for the parties to enhance their climate commitment by 2020 also known as NDCs. Enhancing NDCs would be a chance for the parties to strengthen their mitigation contributions. This will help the parties not only by accelerating their emission reduction targets, but also by incorporating key sectoral, technological and policy developments that have transpired since 2015.

The UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report, which has been recently released, finds that ‘faster switching to solar and wind energy, and more energy efficient appliances and cars, coupled with a switch from deforestation to reforestation, could together cut emissions by 22 billion tons of CO2 a year’—enough to close the ‘emissions gap’ and put the ‘world back on track to halt warming at 1.5 degrees’. This report further mentions, ‘between 80 and 90 per cent of coal reserves worldwide will need to remain in the ground’ if the set goals are to be met, compared to 50 per cent of natural gas reserves and 35 per cent of oil. In addition, the report says that strict control on methane emissions and other short-lived GHGs could avoid 0.6 degrees of warming by the mid-century.29

In a nutshell, even if plugging methane emissions and growing switch to reforestation can buy time, stabilisation of the changing climate would require bringing emissions of Carbon dioxide down to zero as swiftly as possible. This is not possible without a strong political will and commitments on the part of the countries. Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment, also exhorted to the Parties to display a new sense of urgency to achieve the ends of fighting the negative impacts of climate change.

Endnotes

1. “Paris climate change agreement: the world’s greatest diplomatic success†, The Guardian, December 13, 2015, [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/13/paris-climate-deal-cop-diplomacy-developing-united-nation.

2. Ibid.

3. Paris Agreement, United Nations: 2015.

4. Nair, Chandran (2017), “India, China-not US- Must lead the fight on Climate Change†, Hindustan Times, June 22, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed October 23, 2017 URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/india-china-not-us-must-lead-the-fight-on-climate-change/story-NNxQ5k4MkecCxtZIbIbDFM.html.

5. “Trump withdrawing US from Paris Climate Agreement but open to returning†, [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-withdrawing-us-paris-climate-agreement/story?id=47767077.

6. “Breakthrough as US and China agree to ratify Paris climate deal†, [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/03/breakthrough-us-china-agree-ratify-paris-climate-change-deal.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Shear, D. Michael (2017), “Trump Will Withdraw U.S. From Paris Climate Agreement†, The New York Times, June 1, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/trump-paris-climate-agreement.html.

10. “Trump withdrawing US from Paris Climate Agreement but open to returning†, [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-withdrawing-us-paris-climate-agreement/story?id=47767077.

11. Shear, D. Michael (2017), “Trump Will Withdraw U.S. From Paris Climate Agreement†, The New York Times, June 1, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/trump-paris-climate-agreement.html.

12. Nair, Chandran (2017), “India, China-not US- Must lead the fight on Climate Change†, Hindustan Times, June 22, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed October 23, 2017 URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/india-china-not-us-must-lead-the-fight-on-climate-change/story-NNxQ5k4MkecCxtZIbIbDFM.html.

13. Carter, Brandon (2017), “Nicaragua signs Paris climate deal, leaving US, Syria as only countries out†, [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: http://thehill.com/policy/energy environment/356809-nicaragua-signs-paris-climate-deal-leaving-us-syria-as-only.

14. Shear, D. Michael (2017), “Trump Will Withdraw US From Paris Climate Agreement†, The New York Times, June 1, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/trump-paris-climate-agreement.html.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. “Trump withdrawing US from Paris Climate Agreement but open to returning†, [Online: web] Accessed October 24, 2017 URL: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-withdrawing-us-paris-climate-agreement/story?id=47767077.

18. Ibid.

19. Pearce, Fred (2017), “Why the Post-Paris Climate Challenge Is Even Harder Than We Thought†, Yale Environment360, November 7, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed November 12, 2017 URL: http://e360.yale.edu/features/why-post-paris-climate-challenge-is-even-harder-than-we-thought.

20. An email to the Author from World Resources Institute <beth.elliott@wri.org> on November 7, 2017.

21. Bradsher, Keith (2016),†The Paris Agreement on Climate Change Is Official: Now What?†The New York Times, 3 November 2017 [Online: web] Accessed 24 October 2017 URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/business/energy-environment/paris-climate-change-agreement-official-now-what.html.

22. PTI (2017), Co2 Levels hit record high, The Hindu, Delhi, October 31, 2017.

23. Pearce, Fred (2017), “Why the Post-Paris Climate Challenge Is Even Harder Than We Thought†, Yale Environment360, November 7, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed November 12, 2017 URL: http://e360.yale.edu/features/why-post-paris-climate-challenge-is-even-harder-than-we-thought.

24. Nair, Chandran (2017), “India, China-not US- Must lead the fight on Climate Change, Hindustan Times, June 22, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed October 23, 2017 URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/india-china-not-us-must-lead-the-fight-on-climate-change/story-NNxQ5k4MkecCxtZIbIbDFM.html.

25. Dembicki, Geoff (2017), “The Convenient Disappearance of Climate Change Denial in China†, [Online: web] Accessed October 23, 2017 URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/31/the-convenient-disappearance-of-climate-change-denial-in-china/.

26. Ibid.

27. Dagnet, Yamide, Cynthia Elliott and Eliza Northrop (2017), “Insider: Negotiating Paris Agreement’s Implementation Guidelines at COP23†, World Resources Institute, November 2, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed November 9, 2017 URL: http://www.wri.org/blog/2017/11/insider-negotiating-paris-agreements-implementation-guidelines-cop23.

28. The World Bank (2017), “A Small Island Country Steps Forward to Unite the World Behind Climate Action“, [Online: web] Accessed November 9, 2017 URL: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2017/11/06/a-small-island-country-steps-forward-to-unite-the-world-behind-climate-action?cid=ECR_E_NewsletterWeekly_ EN_EXT.

29. Pearce, Fred (2017), “Why the Post-Paris Climate Challenge Is Even Harder Than We Thought†, Yale Environment360, November 7, 2017 [Online: web] Accessed November 12, 2017 URL: http://e360.yale.edu/features/why-post-paris-climate-challenge-is-even-harder-than-we-thought.

The author is a Visiting Research Scholar, Institute of South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Sichuan University, China. He can be contacted at prashant.krsharma[at]yahoo.in

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