Tweeting from Taormina after the G7 summit, President Trump announced his intention to make a final decision on the Paris Agreement this week. The fact that he did not join the other six leaders when they reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement might indicate a plan to pull the US out of the Agreement.
This decision would be a huge but expected U-turn in US climate policy, in line with Trump’s electoral campaign promises. Under President Obama, the US took on a leading role in the global fight against climate change. Indeed, the Paris Agreement would probably not have materialised without the action of the former President. He played a central role in committing the US to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and also in engaging emerging countries - and particularly China - in the process. The road to Paris started to look really possible only when, in November 2014, the US engaged in a landmark deal with China that put the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters in lockstep to cut emissions.
If President Trump’s does decide to withdraw, this choice would clearly be driven by domestic political reasons. It would completely dismiss three fundamental facts of the USA’s energy and climate reality:
- The US is already decarbonising, as a result of energy market trends rather than of climate policy. Due to sluggish economic growth, the switch from coal to natural gas that has followed to the ‘shale gas revolution’, and the emergence of more efficient technologies, the US has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2015. Sticking to the Paris Agreement would, therefore, not have been too difficult for the US.
- Trump’s wished-for renaissance of coal is unlikely to materialise, either with or without strong climate policy. As most recently illustrated by a study from the Columbia University Center on Global Energy, the decline in domestic US coal has been predominantly due to increased competition from cheap natural gas rather than by environmental regulations or climate policy. Should natural gas prices remain at current levels, US coal demand will continue its decline, even without the Paris Agreement.
- As a result of technological advancements, renewable energies such as solar and wind will inexorably expand their role in the US energy system, regardless of climate policy. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that the average cost of wind energy has declined by 66% between 2009 and 2016, while the average cost of solar photovoltaic has fallen by 85%.
These facts are clear also to oil companies. It is not by coincidence that even the CEO of Exxon Mobil (the world’s largest listed oil company, and also the one considered by climate change activists as the most conservative), recently wrote a personal letter to President Trump, urging him to keep the US a party to the Paris Agreement.
On the basis of these three facts US decarbonisation is likely to continue, even if the Trump administration withdraws from the Paris Agreement. Therefore the most worrisome implication of Trump’s eventual decision would not concern the US contribution to global warming, but rather the solidity of the overall structure of the Paris Agreement.
The Agreement is fundamentally based on international cooperation and mutual trust. With the historically-largest greenhouse gas emitter pulling out of the Agreement, it would be difficult to convince other countries to stick to their commitments.
In particular, countries with carbon-based economies such as the Gulf countries, Russia or even Australia and South Africa might have primarily joined the Paris Agreement in order to avoid being side-lined in international policy debates. If the US is leaving, this argument is somewhat meaningless.
More worryingly, emerging countries whose emissions are likely to substantially increase, such as India, closely monitor US climate policies. Their governments, and those of all other parties, would most likely find it more difficult to persuade their domestic audiences of the need and feasibility of strong climate policies.
In this context, the roles of the second-largest historical emitter, the EU, and of the currently-largest emitter, China, will be key to ensure the stability of the Paris Agreement architecture in the event of a unilaterial US withdrawal.
If Trump pulls the US out of the Agreement, the EU and China should promptly react, by taking the lead in a new initiative to revive the ‘spirit of Paris’.
First of all, the two partners should immediately deliver a joint declaration aimed at reaffirming their commitments towards the Paris Agreement, and at inviting all other parties to do the same. The 19th EU-China Summit taking place in Brussels on 1-2 June might represent a timely occasion to do this.
Secondly, the two partners should propose to the German Presidency of the G20 to organise a special session (open to the G20 countries minus the US) devoted to the Paris Agreement at the forthcoming Hamburg summit of 7–8 July 2017. This session should aim to build up the political momentum for advancing the implementation of the Paris Agreement. In particular, it should encourage the advancement of ongoing discussions on issues such as monitoring regimes and climate finance. In particular, the clarity on the US stance should make it easier for the other countries to make progress on the complex negotiations about how to transpose the articles of the Paris Agreement into workable rules. This should make concrete steps forward possible in the forthcoming COP23 in Bonn (6 - 17 November 2017).
The EU should now swiftly understand its new global responsibility, and promptly strengthen its engagement with China and other countries to keep up momentum and decisively proceed along the road defined in Paris.