What Trump’s Withdrawal from Paris Means for Global Climate Action

In an interview with Gitika Bhardwaj, Rob Bailey argues that the biggest loser in Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement, will be the US.

5 minute READ

Rob Bailey

Former Director, Energy, Environment and Resources Programme

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement which was signed by more than 190 countries in 2015. How will this impact both US and global efforts to tackling climate change?

It’s a blow for the Paris Agreement […] The irony in all of this is that it was the US that drove the negotiations in the final stages in Paris and pushed through an agreement which was largely designed to accommodate the US. So it’s very disappointing that at this stage the US is retreating.

However, I don’t think it will have as big an effect on global emissions as you might imagine. Yes, the US is the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, but I think the damage to international emissions was probably done when Trump got into the White House, because as soon as he became president, everybody started to discount America’s pledge and Trump withdrawing from Paris doesn’t change that.

Having said that, I think there are a lot of reasons to believe that emissions reductions will continue in the US and that’s because a lot of action to tackle climate change is happening at the state level rather than at the federal level.

In terms of the US economy, it’s going to harm the US economy in the long term. The future is not coal despite what Donald Trump indicated in his speech. All of the other countries in the world are moving to clean technologies, and as an innovation-driven and innovation-dependent economy, it’s in America’s long-term interest to be at the front of this revolution, getting the intellectual property, investing in the R&D and setting itself up for a low-carbon future. Leaving the agreement isn’t going to help.

Who will be the biggest losers and winners from Donald Trump’s decision to come out of the agreement?

Ultimately no-one can win from the world’s second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter pulling out of the world’s only multilateral agreement to address climate change. But thinking beyond climate change, in terms of soft power, global leadership and the international rules-based order, this does leave a leadership vacuum. Indeed, we are seeing signals from China that there’s appetite for it to step up and fill that space. President Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos at the start of the year where he talked about defending the international rules-based order – including the WTO and the Paris Agreement – indicates that China is willing to assume a leadership role which is in part opportunistic as it will be beneficial for China’s growing influence in the world.

The US is set to become the third country, alongside Syria and Nicaragua, not in the agreement. Do you think there is political appetite for other countries to withdraw from the accord too?

I’d be surprised if other countries followed the US. There was a meme that emerged on Twitter this morning calling this group of countries the ‘Axis of Feeble’. Syria is a basket case country, ravaged by civil war, and Nicaragua didn’t sign up to the Paris Agreement because it didn’t think it was ambitious enough and now you have the US added to the mix. So it doesn’t look like a club of countries that other governments will be falling over themselves to join. As a result, I don’t expect a domino effect from this. Among the world’s biggest emitters in the world – China, the EU, India and even Russia – all have said that they are going to stand by the Paris Agreement so we are likely to see the world recommit to Paris.

Donald Trump mentioned that the US contributes more than other countries to climate finance. How much does the US contribute to climate finance in comparison to other countries?

The US made a commitment of around $3 billion to climate finance, and across all aid categories, the US is the biggest donor in the world but these are voluntary contributions. There’s nothing in the Paris Agreement that forces the US to give that $3 billion. It’s been decided by previous US administrations, so that’s not a reason to withdraw from Paris, it’s just a reason to revisit your climate finance contributions if that’s what is bothering you.

Why do you think the US president said that withdrawing from the agreement would save jobs although the statistics show that twice as many Americans work in solar and wind than in coal?

From the study he was quoting in his speech, he was cherry-picking one very particular and very unrealistic scenario to generate the numbers that he wanted and those numbers are highly questionable. There are around three million jobs in the US clean technology sector compared to only a couple hundred thousand in the coal sector and the clean technology sector is growing at 12 times the speed of the rest of the economy. So it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense to be hindering fast-growth and high-employment areas in favour of low-growth and low-employment areas.

The US president argued that he could renegotiate the terms of the agreement for the US rather than pull out completely. Do you think this is likely given what Germany, France and Italy have said about the agreement not being open for renegotiation?

I was baffled by this because the US got a deal in Paris that was extremely beneficial for the country. It gave it the right to set its own targets, it imposes the same obligations on developed and emerging economies and it had clauses in there about transparency reporting that the US has been desperate to see. So it’s not clear what Donald Trump might seek to gain from renegotiating the agreement.

I’m also not at all surprised that Germany, Italy and France have said no chance, because it would be a complete waste of time and a massive distraction from what does need to happen over the next few years, which is setting the rules for when the agreement does come into implementation in 2020.

The Trump administration will not be able to officially withdraw from the agreement until 2020 which is also election year in the US. Could we see the US remain in the agreement after all if Donald Trump fails to win a second term?

Countries are able to submit their notice of withdrawal three years after ratification, and then there’s a period of one year after that which takes us to November 2020 at the earliest point that the US could withdraw from the agreement, which is also when the next presidential election will be taking place. So it is conceivable that, if Trump turned out to be a one-term president, that a subsequent president could just throw the whole process out of the window and the US could remain in the agreement after all. The only thing we would have lost would have been three years of federal action on climate change in the US.

The other possible option is if Trump decides to withdraw from the UNFCCC – the overarching convention under which Paris sits – which could be done within a year, however, that would be the nuclear option because that would mean the US would be completely outside the tent on everything.

Why do you think Donald Trump singled out China and India as benefitting from the agreement at the expense of the US?

He seemed to indicate that the Paris Agreement allows China and India to start coal-mining and switching on their coal-fired power stations while it forces the US to shut their mines and stations down. But there’s nothing in the agreement that imposes those kinds of restrictions on the US or gives China and India those kinds of opportunities.

What it does is, it lets governments to set their own targets and policies, in ways that reflect their national circumstances and contexts. So, in theory, if the US wanted to open coal mines or switch on their coal-fired power stations, it absolutely could under the agreement. The only thing stopping it from doing so is hard economics: the shale gas revolution has made coal uncompetitive in the US and that’s why it has been shutting down its coal mines and coal-fired power stations. Pulling out of Paris won’t affect those fundamental economic forces.

The Trump administration recently announced budget cuts to the US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. What does this mean for the future of the US energy efficiency and renewable energy industries?

This is where the real concerns arise: it’s going to be the restriction of federal funding. That could mean a decrease in climate finance which means there will be less money for developing countries to reduce their emissions as well as adapt to climate change, and as a result of that, they may make less of an effort to reduce their national emissions which could see an increase in global emissions. Similarly, US cuts ranging from energy efficiency and renewable energy programmes in the US to R&D on climate change could all have very corrosive impacts on action against climate change. Not just in the US but globally.

How are US states, cities and businesses reacting to Donald Trump’s announcement, for example, do you see states like New York and California continuing to invest in renewable energy and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions?

I think it will galvanize them. There are almost 30 states that have ambitious targets to invest in renewable energy and set up carbon emission trading schemes so there is no reason why we wouldn’t expect this to continue. California, Minnesota, Washington, New York, New Hampshire – the list goes on. Trump’s announcement won’t change anything in terms of these states’ resolve.

There are some concerns, however, that the US government might prevent more states from pursuing more ambitious policies on climate change. But does the administration really want to get caught up in endless wrangling with states about this or does it have better things to do?

One of the reasons Donald Trump gave for his decision to pull out of the agreement was that the economics of investing in clean energy doesn’t add up. Does he have a case?

Increasingly it adds up. The economic costs of low carbon technology have fallen precipitously over the last 10 years and increasingly it makes economic sense to do things using low carbon technology. The cost of renewable energy has fallen hugely: the cost of solar PV has declined by 80 per cent over the last five years and wind power is also becoming much cheaper although not quite at the same speed as solar.

In addition, the cost of battery storage technology is starting to fall quickly. These are exponential curves that continue to fall, so the argument that it doesn’t make economic sense to invest in renewable energy, doesn’t stack up. In fact, looking at the figures, you really start to question if it makes sense to continue to invest in fossil fuels and nuclear energy.