As the dust settles on President Trump’s announcement that the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, what can we see looking forward?
The President’s decision was framed as good for the American economy and supported by those who symbolically link climate science denial with a political philosophy, have a financial interest, or often both.
It drew wide criticism from many Americans, including Fortune 500 businesses, world leaders, the scientific community, and civil society around the world.
What does the President’s announcement mean?
To date, 195 countries have signed the Paris Agreement and 147 have ratified. When the US withdraws, it will join Syria and Nicaragua to form a group of three countries not on-board. Article 28 of the Agreement details the process of withdrawal.
The US can only formally trigger withdrawal three years from the date the Agreement entered into force; that was on 4 November, 2016. Therefore, only after 4 November, 2019 can the US notify the United Nations, in writing, of its withdrawal. But that will not take effect until one year later – 4 November, 2020 - one day after the next US Presidential election.
And a new President may rejoin by executive order – perhaps on day one.
There are serious implications of President Trump’s announcement. It could give succour to other countries who are considering turning their backs on their agreed responsibilities. And it may slow the implementation of the Agreement as the world’s second largest greenhouse gas polluter lifts the ‘foot off the pedal’ (so to speak) of its domestic action, and reduces its funding of global efforts.
However, a counter balance to the President’s announcement is already occurring.
Other countries are stepping into stronger leadership positions. China, France and Germany have all urged countries to maintain their commitment to the Paris Agreement.
Other efforts outside of nation states are also becoming increasingly prominent.
Major US corporations such as Apple, Walmart, Coca Cola, DuPont and Goldman Sachs are among 1,100 American businesses that urged the United States to remain in the Agreement. They see economic advantage, job creation and corporate responsibility in cleaner economies.
In 2016, low-carbon energy technologies already employed about 800,00 Americans – many more than coal (which employed around 160,000). And the investment in and license to operate corporations that are funding efforts to oppose climate action is being increasingly questioned by publics who grant those licenses.
And in the United States, cities and states are increasingly leading the way on reducing emissions and some argue that their efforts alone may keep the U.S. on track to meet its Paris emission reduction commitments over the next four years, although this needs further analysis.
Michael Bloomberg, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change and former Mayor of New York City, has expressed confidence that US “mayors, governors, and business leaders … will reach the emission reduction goals the U.S. made in Paris in 2015”.
What about the Asia/Pacific region?
The Australian Prime Minister has commendably announced that Australia is maintaining its commitment to the Paris Agreement. With the Great Barrier Reef at high risk, and other challenges including a drying southern Australia and heat extremes, Australia’s national interest is served by global action on climate change.
The US’s withdrawal from a leadership role in the Paris Agreement may see a shift of clean economic activity and innovation to Asia. Australia is well positioned to benefit from the research and education, economic and societal cooperation in this region. Australia’s commitment to Paris will need to be matched by credible domestic action to capitalise on this.
The Agreement commits to goals of keeping average global warming below 2°C and striving to keep below 1.5°C . It also agreed to achieve net zero emissions globally by the later part of this century. Countries put forward their own nationally determined targets and agreed to strengthen these over time, given there is a substantial gap between commitments and what is needed to achieve the goals.
President Trump’s announcement will mean greater importance rests with three steps central to achieving the Paris Agreement: transforming energy systems, building knowledge networks and strengthened city and state/provincial climate action.
First, a major transformation of energy systems from fossil fuel to renewable energy. Accelerating the move to net zero carbon economies will require an acceleration of research, development and deployment of zero carbon technologies and practices at larger scale. A key driver for the developing world will be the leveraging of private sector finance at a greatly increased scale.
Second, to build confidence in the implementation of the Paris Agreement, a more rapid sharing of knowledge about technologies, polices, governance and community engagement is needed across countries. A fair sharing of the challenges of change and the benefits of cleaner economies within and between countries is part of this. This will help build the conditions for a race to the top and confidence in the benefits of clean economies and climate action.
Third, a significant proportion of greenhouse emissions come from cities and within the jurisdiction states – more than half in many countries. The C40 group of cities and states/provinces that have signed the Californian lead Under 2 MOU are already undertaking leadership action on climate change and benefiting from cleaner economies.
There is now a clear opportunity and need for enhanced leadership.
There is an old Chinese saying that every journey of a thousand steps starts with the first step. Paris Agreement implementation has started its journey. There will be steps backwards, but accelerating the steps forward will bring the goals closer quicker.