What has happened and why?

The US has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, an accord signed by 195 of the 197 UN countries in December 2015. Agreement had been reached to:

  • limit global temperature increases to “well below” 2°C, and to endeavour to limit them to 1.5°C between 2050 and 2100
  • review and strengthen each country’s emission-reduction plans every five years
  • enable poorer nations through ‘climate finance’ to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy. 

President Trump cited unfairness to US business as one of the key reasons for leaving the agreement. To our minds, this is slightly confusing, as the agreement is voluntary, and it is actually up to each country to decide how it makes emission reductions. The US could have therefore changed its commitment to ensure business was supported.  

The president also cited concern that other countries would take financial advantage of the US, and that the US economy would lose $3 trillion in GDP. However, many other countries, including China, have actually pledged to support the global climate transition financially, and the figure of $3 trillion is derived merely from one conservative think tank report (The Heritage Foundation), which concluded the agreement would “result in over $2.5 trillion in lost GDP by 2035”.[1]

Finally, Mr Trump left open the possibility of renegotiating the agreement or an “entirely new transaction”. The reality is, however, that there is no process for reopening the agreement, and it is unlikely other countries will want to rehash a plan that took six years to agree. 

Does it matter that the US is pulling out?

  • Scientifically: Yes. The US is the world’s second largest CO2 emitter, accounting for almost one-sixth of global emissions. Its departure will place a heavier burden on other countries to stick within the ‘two-degree’ warming goal.  Some studies have shown that a US withdrawal could even make the Paris agreement targets unreachable.
  • Geopolitically: At a geopolitical level, it also matters. Multilateral agreements work better if everyone remains ‘in’, and this departure may give other countries an excuse to soften their emission-reduction plans. However, China and Europe’s continued commitment should retain confidence.
  • Reputationally: The move has been branded ‘irresponsible’ by world leaders. It may also simultaneously have helped China step into the shoes of being the economic and military superpower, which shapes and leads global peace and trade deals. 
  • Procedurally: The Paris agreement is designed so that no country can withdraw within three years of its coming into force, and the process of withdrawal takes a further year to complete. Therefore, the US cannot withdraw before 5 November 2020, the day after the next presidential election, meaning that the president cannot withdraw from the agreement within this term. Should another president be elected, this move could once more be reversed.

What has been the global reaction? 

This move is not a surprise. President Trump has long called climate change “a hoax”[2] and promised to “cancel” the Paris deal during his election campaign.[3] China and the European Union have already restated their commitment to the Paris agreement and the “irreversible” move away from fossil fuels.[4]

Newton’s conclusion

While not a surprise, the US decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement is a blow to the 2015 agreement, albeit that the other signatories should persevere. However, while we are supportive of strong, international policy moves to limit global warming to 2°C, so far it has not been these sorts of policies that have actually changed global emissions.

Instead, state and national-level subsidies, along with economics, have meant that solar, wind and lithium-ion battery cost curves have fallen, and that global coal usage has declined. We believe future progress on carbon emissions will be a by-product of these continuing trends, and of business’s vested interest in improving industrial efficiency.

 

[1] http://www.heritage.org/environment/report/consequences-paris-protocol-devastating-economic-costs-essentially-zero 

[2] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/6/1/15726472/trump-tweets-global-warming-paris-climate-agreement

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-us-2016-36401174

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/585f1946-45e2-11e7-8519-9f94ee97d996

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