The Paris Agreement — a non-binding document to govern global carbon emissions and climate change policies, which went into effect on November 4, 2016 with ratification by 147 of the 197 parties of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) — is facing its worst challenge in its history. On June 1, 2017, President Trump of the US decided to leave the Agreement, shortly after meeting in Sicily his counterparts from the G7 countries, who all had ratified it.
As the US is still the second-largest carbon emitter in the world and the conventional leader in global governance, needless to say this decision is a definite setback to the collective effort at the global level to curb greenhouse gas emissions that began over three decades ago. However, Trump’s “climate exit” will not reverse the overall trend of moving towards a greener and less fossil-fuel dependent global economy and the more effective global governance of climate change.
The Cost of Domestic Political Uncertainty
Trump’s decision on the Paris Agreement is no doubt disappointing, but should not be shocking to American political observers. Trump’s reliance on a populist strategy to gain legitimacy of his rule and circumvent institutional “checks and balances” has created a rare situation in American politics where foreign policy decisions are not made independently but are increasingly infringed at the price of domestic political uncertainty.
Similar to his short-lived executive order banning travelers from seven foreign countries and his bombing of Syria, this latest decision by Trump over America’s commitment to a global treaty is also less about the actual dynamics of international affairs than a seemingly quick payback to his voters and a desperate call for more popular backing at home.
Right after Trump took over the Oval Office, his team started to downgrade the importance of climate policy discussions as part of fulfilling his election pledge. For example, all climate change related wordings were removed from the official website of the White House. US based scientists even mobilized and volunteered to save climate related research data fearing public access would soon be denied.
While there was some hope for a last-minute change of heart and the US not leaving the Paris Agreement — including private appeals by Tim Cook and Elon Musk, the deepening crisis related to Michael Flynn, James Comey, and Russian meddling in America’s 2016 presidential election might have contributed to Trump’s announcement of quitting on June 1 to appeal to his core domestic base, though pulling out of the Paris Agreement will not help with his promises of safeguarding the coal industry or creating more domestic industrial opportunities.
Global Climate Governance without US Leadership
While the words of former American president Barak Obama, “nothing gets done without American leadership” at the global level, still sound fresh, it is not the first time in the international community that climate change has met with a retreat of the US government. Former President Bush had pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate within the first 100 days of his administration, which was immediately referred to as “Kyoto’s death warrant.”
Nature magazine’s website has published a series of commentaries by the world’s leading scientists on climate change since June 1, which not only criticized Trump’s decision but also highlighted “it’s no time for fatalism.”
Despite Trump’s decision, local American politicians and businesses have announced individual plans for international cooperation in emission reduction.
China, the EU, Canada, India, and many more countries have come forward and expressed their intention to honor the Paris Agreement. France, Germany, and a number of other important signatories have rejected the idea of renegotiating the Agreement. Indeed, the vacuum of the American leadership may just be in time for new patterns of global collective leadership to emerge.
China, since president Xi Jinping took office in 2012, has exhibited an appetite for bigger roles in global governance. In the field of climate change, China in the world’s largest investor in renewables and has pledged USD 3.1 billion for South-South cooperation and the UN Green Climate Fund. Trump’s “climate quit” may serve Xi’s “China dream” well at the global level.
The EU as a whole has been crucial for the success of the Paris Conference of Parties negotiations in 2015, and leading European countries have consistently contributed to global climate governance by setting up best practices, experimenting with innovative policy and market solutions, and championing green technological advancements.
In addition, India, supported by many other up-and-coming large developing countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, has been an active and important voice at the climate negotiating tables to bargain against the developed countries. Compared with China, India is often in a better position to defend the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” on behalf of the developing world who would like to push for more elements of “climate justice” in future global agreements.
Market Driven Support for Carbon Emission Reduction
Despite Trump’s decision, local American politicians and businesses have announced individual plans for international cooperation in emission reduction. Most notably, the Governor of the California State announced that he would lead a team to visit Beijing and explore the possibility of merging California’s carbon trading market with China’s. He commented that with more experience and better institutional designs and technologies, his team can help China to launch the world’s largest national-level carbon trade market, and in turn meet California’s own targets of carbon reduction.
The progress of global climate negotiation has always been a result of not only finding common ground among different national proposals, but also balancing between political and corporate interests. Without marketable technologies and valid market solutions, the Paris Agreement and its intended goal of keeping global temperature rise less than 2°C would have never won overwhelming support from the 197 UNFCCC members.
Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to meet the Paris Agreement target regardless of the US Federal government’s stance is backed by more than 1,200 governors, academics, and, more importantly, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and prominent investors. As Nike starts revolutionizing consumer goods manufacturing by scaling up 3D printing and robotics technologies, it is clear that new economic growth sources for the US and the world lie in places other than coal mining and energy/labor intensive industries.
The Stone Age ended not because of lack of stones. So would the fossil fuel era.