In a few hours, the United States will likely exit the Paris Agreement on climate change, fulfilling President Donald Trump’s key campaign promise.
The US exit will primarily affect two aspects of the deal – finance and technology transfer to developing countries and emissions reduction.
Under the Paris Agreement, participating countries have resolved to tackle climate change through actions called Nationally Determined Contributions. A core condition in most developing nations making their contributions is they will receive support – finance, technology transfer and capacity building – from the developed countries. In all, this support works out to an estimated $2 trillion-$4 trillion. Without it, developing countries will find it onerous to honour their commitments. Thus, the US exit will widen the gap between ambition and implementation of the deal.
The Trump regime had earlier indicated that Paris exit or not, it would no longer support the Green Climate Fund, an entity under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The US had pledged $3 billion to the fund but only $1 billion has been transferred. With the Green Fund approving climate change projects in developing countries, the loss of the “notional” $2 billion is bound to sting. Unless, of course, other developed countries step in to fill the resource gap, as they should.
As for the affect on emissions reduction, the US exit will not be as dramatic in the larger scheme of things. The US, the biggest historic polluter, had in any case pledged low emissions cuts under the Paris Agreement. Indeed, the gap between the long-term temperature goal of the deal and the collective Nationally Determination Contributions is glaring. While the goal is to restrict temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the collective contributions indicate temperatures exceeding 3 degrees Celsius. What is worrying, though, is that with Trump undoing his predecessor Barack Obama’s climate policies, the US emissions will only increase.
An argument can be made that the US exit will hurt the spirit of multilateralism, but this is not the country’s first exit from a global deal. The US had left the Kyoto Protocol, citing as reason, as it has now, the non-negotiability of the American lifestyle.
Gaps to fill
Of the dilemmas the US exit poses, this is quite crucial: who will fill the resulting resource gap? Rather surprisingly, some commentators see a “leadership” vacuum as a result of the exit. But the US has never been a leader on climate change.
India and China cannot be expected to fill the gap left by the US, either in terms of financial support or emissions cuts.
Climate change obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are rooted in historical responsibility. That is, since developed countries caused climate change in the first place, they are required to undertake higher emissions cuts and incentivise developing countries, financially and technologically, against replicating their carbon-intensive growth pathway. The Paris accord, which is part of the convention, does not change the differentiated obligations of developed and developing countries.
China and India do not have historical responsibility. So, making them fill the gap will disrupt the delicate balance of differentiated responsibilities of developed and developing countries achieved in the agreement. In fact, they are already doing more than their fair share of climate action.
There is no scope to renegotiate the Paris Agreement. The only way to ensure equitable climate action is that developed countries step in and fill the gap left by the US.
More Trump trouble?
Climate change experts have been analysing the implications of the US’ possible exit from the Paris accord ever since Trump became president. While one school of thought advocated for the US to stay, another has argued that climate action would get a fillip in the event of the US exit. They contend it would be easier to act on the urgent problem of climate change without a climate laggard country and a climate change denialist regime at the helm pulling countries back in their effort to tackle the problem. Especially since the world has tried to accommodate the US interests several times over.
There are merits to both arguments but the issue is not one of black and white. It is clear that poor victims of climate change and people battling the disastrous policies of the Trump regime will have to bear the burden of the US exit.
However, even with the exit, the US is likely to be around for four more years as, technically, it will take that long for the exit to take effect. According to Article 28 of the Paris accord, a country can withdraw “at any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force…any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt…of the notification of withdrawal.” The agreement came into force in October 2016.
This presents the possibility of the US continuing to intervene in climate change negotiations under the UN framework convention, where members are currently engaged in crafting arrangements for implementation of the Paris Agreement. The deadline to finish this work is 2018. Given that it will take four years for the US to exit, will it intervene to whittle down the implementation arrangements and, thereby, further weaken the Paris Agreement? The accord is already weak, mainly because the world bent over backwards to accommodate the interests of the US.
Of course, it is possible the US will remain silent on implementation arrangements. But even engaging in the negotiations when it does not intend to be a party to the deal would indicate bad faith. We will now have to wait for the fine print of Trump’s likely announcement to get a clearer idea of how the US intends to deal with the international community and the Paris Agreement in the next four years, and indeed the urgent concern of climate change.