The US is leaving the Paris Climate Agreement: but does it really matter?
On the 7th August 2017, America made clear its intentions to withdraw from the climate agreement enforced by Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Having originally been ridiculed for his stance towards the treaty, Mr. Trump refused to withdraw his oppositional stance towards the reality of climate issues in the 21st Century.
Certainly, having taken this stance, America is almost isolated in opposition to the treaty. Both Syria and Nicaragua have entered the fray- the latter had been described as a ‘renewable energy paradise’ by the World Bank in 2013. The duo’s decision to cooperate in the 2015 agreement means the number of countries committed to the Paris Climate Agreement now stands at 197. America is now the last remaining country to blacklist their name from the treaty. Donald J. Trump’s decision to remove the US’ signature from the agreement has provoked a notable amount of public discussion – the biggest question, however, being; what happens next?
With discussion amongst renowned climate scientists suggesting a rise of any more than 2°C in global temperatures could prove fatal for many segments of Earth’s biosphere, a shift away from eco-friendliness at this stage had always strongly been discouraged in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. Thus, many questions have been and will be raised. Major US companies, including Apple and Elon Musk’s Tesla (two companies renowned for large-scale eco projects), have spoken out against the president. This has raised discussion in the midst of the action. What does this mean for the future of climate policy, with America at the forefront of the policy under the Obama tenure?
The sheer size of America is a major factor in consideration for what a US withdrawal could entail. Despite the views of their president, referring to the process of climate change as a ‘hoax’ in tweets from 2012, recent statistics from the Washington Post show that the majority of Americans do in fact believe in climate change; in fact, 70% of the US population state they do, with 18% uncertain. This is a major driving point in the fight against global warming, considering US populations are now on the verge of encompassing over 330 million people. This goes to show that the political approach of president Trump does not reliably equate to the representation of beliefs within America’s population. However, on this margin, we have to question; what proportion of climate change is caused by the US alone? There are few reliable statistics to give a reasonable estimate to this consensus, however, considering natural gas is still the dominant energy source at 33.8%, with coal at 30.4% of the energy supply in the US, much of the energy consumption in North America is on the behalf of non-renewable providers. This is a looming problem, one of which is not going to improve with Trump’s eager push for further fossil fuel sources. Considering the nation is so invested in the non-renewable sector, this will be a hard market to push, even at the end of Mr. Trump’s time in office. In my view, these statistics go to further show that this is a bad deal.
The main concern lies around what this means for America. Trump’s proposal to scrap the treaty is surely a mark of erasure for the Obama tenure. Earlier on in the year, Trump aimed to repeal’ the ObamaCare policy set by his predecessor, before refining policies around the distribution of solar power and withdrawing many of Obama’s policies around the Clean Power Plan. Climate scientists state that if temperature rises are to exceed 2°C before the turn of the century, we will be unable to control the effects of a runaway greenhouse effect. Considering the US is a major player amongst the climate scene, any large-scale shift away from climate concerns could trigger, in the long-term, catastrophic consequences. The removal of the USA from the treaty is one piece in the overall arch of President Trump’s climate disposition. Trump’s 30% tax on imported solar panels to the US provides no reassurance against the oncoming tide of rising global temperatures. The President has made clear his denial of climate change science, and this withdrawal from an important climate change agreement is another example of the administration’s scientific illiteracy.
One of Donald Trump’s main policy promises during his election campaign was to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Agreement. The treaty essentially commits nations to reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to limit the global rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next 80 years. The fulfillment of this promise has left many in the US and around the world to wonder what long-term effects on climate change policy this momentous decision will have.
Firstly, like many international treaties, the Paris Climate Agreement is non-binding, which indicates that signing such an agreement means very little in real terms. But what does non-binding actually mean? It means that there is no legal framework through which countries can be punished for not reducing their carbon emissions. Trump’s argument during the election was that while the US and the EU may actively reduce emissions to the expected standard, developing nations (which will be given large sums of money by developed nations to invest in cleaner energy), as well as countries like India and China, will simply take the money and run, leaving the US weaker, poorer, and with a hole in its economy. The treaty states:
“Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention.”
Can the Paris Climate Treaty, then, be trusted to be an effective tool for the reduction of carbon emissions? If states have no binding responsibility to implement clean energy policies, then it is surely an enormous leap of faith to say, as Laurent Fabius (the French foreign minister at the time) did, that the Paris agreement is an “historic turning point” for climate change action. The Climate Action Tracker states that the great majority of the work needed to reduce temperature rises to 2 degrees would need to be done towards the end of the century and that the Paris Climate commitments get us about 1% of the way to 2 degrees. The other 99% is left until after 2030 to figure out.
At this point, you may be thinking that even though it’s 1%, that’s still important, and much better than nothing. I agree. Let’s remember that the Paris agreement is not legislation. The relevant legislation in the US is called the Clean Power Plan, a policy of the Obama administration implemented by the administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. It is not an act of Congress but instead sits neatly within the parameters of the Clean Air Act, which is. Trump has ordered a review of this plan, and his administration is likely to end it. However, Trump has hinted at reworking the plan, probably focusing more on clean coal, fracking, and nuclear power. This won’t be very different from the original plan which committed to opening up the Alaskan tundra to drilling, and so won’t be much of a shift. My point here is that the US’s reduction of carbon emissions relies much more heavily on domestic politics than on international treaties. Indeed the mayor of Pittsburgh (Bill Peduto), in an anti-Trump declaration, has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2035. He is not the only one, with 391 US mayors (calling themselves the US Climate Mayors) pledging to independently commit to the Paris Agreement targets.
Consensus always bothers me. If the treaty had been signed by 100 countries, I’d sleep soundly in my bed. But the only country in the world who is not a signatory at the moment is the US. This means North Korea has signed it. North Korea, with coal one of the few things propping up its economy, has pledged to reduce emissions, continuing Kim Jong-Un’s famous commitment to global peace and prosperity. Other signatories include Saudi Arabia (famous for clean energy, I think most of its economy is based on wind turbines?), Iran, and China. None of these states care much for environmentalism, and any progress they do make in planting trees will be done off the backs of indentured servants. Just as North Korea’s signature means nothing, the absence of America’s is equally lacking in significance.