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Why US exit from Paris climate deal is a tight slap for the rest of the world

Without the US taking responsibility for reducing its share of emissions, the world cannot meet the key objective of the Paris agreement

opinion Updated: Jun 03, 2017 00:03 IST
Chandra Bhushan
Chandra Bhushan
Paris deal,Donald Trump,Carbon emissions
Protesters hold up signs during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington, DC objecting to US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, June 1(AFP)

Today, when United States President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, he did nothing more than formalise the anti-climate policies that he had been promoting since assuming office. In March, Trump signed a sweeping pro-fossil fuel executive order. The order promotes coal mining on federal land, calls for cancelling, revising or revoking any rule or action that can potentially burden the development of domestic fossil fuel resources, revokes carbon pollution standards from the power sector and halts the implementation of the clean power plan that aims to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants.

Essentially, before today’s announcement, Trump had already dismantled the “modest” initiatives of the Obama administration to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

Before the order, the Trump administration defunded most of the programmes related to lowering domestic GHG emissions and scaling down the scientific missions to study climate. Most importantly, Trump refused to fund the United Nations Climate Convention (UNFCCC), including the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The GCF has been set up to help developing countries adapt to climate change and move to low-carbon technologies. With defunding GCF and other international climate change-related initiatives, Trump had already reneged on his commitments to UNFCCC and the Paris agreement.

So, today’s decision was a formal death blow to the agreement. With this decision Trump has fundamentally weakened and changed the character of the agreement.

It is important to understand that the Paris agreement was designed for and pushed by the US for its own convenience. As the US didn’t want to take full responsibility and do its part to solve the climate problem, it pushed for an agreement that was a ‘common minimum denominator’. The ‘minimum’ being what the US wanted to do.

The US committed minimum emissions reduction: 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. If we consider 1990 as baseline, the US would have cut emissions by a mere 13-15% by 2025 and 23-27% by 2030. In comparison, EU-28 will reduce 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

As the Obama administration didn’t want the US Senate to approve the Paris agreement, the agreement was made voluntary, non-legally binding and non-punitive.

So, by and large, the Paris agreement was for the US and by the US. Still the US walked away from the agreement terming it as “unfair”. This is a tight slap on the faces of the remaining 194 countries who had agreed to the whims and fancies of the US to ensure its participation in the agreement.

Without full participation of the US, the Paris agreement cannot meet its objective of keeping the temperatures “well below 2°C”. The US is historically the largest contributor to climate change, responsible for 21% of the carbon stock in the atmosphere. It is currently the second largest polluter in the world, and has one of the highest per capita emissions. It has already exhausted its ‘carbon budget’. So, without the US taking responsibility for reducing its share of emissions, the world cannot meet the key objective of the Paris agreement.

The Paris agreement is based on ‘ratcheting’ the ambition of countries to cut more emissions as the treaty progresses. Trump now wants to renegotiate the agreement and ‘bring-down’ the contributions of the US. This destroys the very foundation of the agreement. Without the ratcheting of ambition, the agreement will never be able to keep the warming within the safe limits.

Under the agreement developed countries have to support developing countries with finance and technology transfer, and to provide a minimum of $100 billion from 2020 onwards. With this withdrawal, the finances available to fight climate change and protect vulnerable communities from the ravages of climate change will reduce significantly. This fundamentally changes the basis on which the developing countries agreed to sign the Paris agreement.

All in all, even while the remaining 194 signatories to the Paris agreement are putting up a brave face, they know that the agreement as envisaged in 2015 is as good as dead.

They now have two options: Wait for Trump to go and hope that a new ‘climate-friendly’ president will replace him. But this strategy has not worked in the past. Clinton agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, but George W Bush did not ratify it. Obama ratified the Paris agreement, but Trump junked it. So mollycoddling the US and waiting for the ‘deliverance’ will not work in the future. The second is: Amend the agreement and make it stronger and ambitious. This should include punitive measures to ensure that countries such as the US don’t walk away from their ‘fair and equitable’ responsibilities.

The bottom line is that the US cannot continue to keep the world hostage. With 5% of the world population, the US cannot be allowed to jeopardise the lives and livelihood of the remaining 95%.

Chandra Bhushan is deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 02, 2017 15:43 IST