For anyone familiar the evolution of the UN climate regime, President Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement is a flashback to 2001, when then President Bush announced that the US would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The global community at that time reacted with shock, and was paralysed for years. It appeared completely unprepared, even though it had been clear that ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by the US senate would be a long shot at best, even under a supportive presidency. It had already taken four years to try to get the US on board, and it took another 4 years after the Bush announcement to patch together a coalition of countries to bring the Kyoto Protocol into force without the US. The compromises made along the way undermined much of its potential to solve the climate crises. For the remainder of the Bush presidency, the US made every effort to bloc negotiations on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, largely paralyzing global efforts to address climate change in the process.
The US announcement to withdraw from Paris did not come as a surprise to anyone. It had been signalled repeatedly since the election of President Trump, and is consistent with the systematic dismantling of effective national climate policy in the US, a process that has been under way for much of 2017.
It is still far from certain what form the withdrawal will ultimately take, and whether it will be completed at all. The actual process cannot be initiated until November 2019, three years after the entry into force of the Paris Agreement. Until then, unless the US decides to leave the UN Climate Regime altogether, it will formally remain a Party to the agreement. Even then, it will take another year for the withdrawal to take effect. Added to the uncertainty are questions surrounding Trump’s ability to withdraw without congressional approval. In short, for the foreseeable future, President Trump’s statement is a political statement with no legal effect for much of his first term in office. It will be interesting to see what role the US plays in the regime for the next few years, including during the important negotiations of the Paris Rulebook, and with respect to its various financial commitments.
The reaction of the global community to the US withdrawal from Paris is notable for its contrast to the reaction to the 2001 US abandonment of Kyoto. Rather than shock and paralysis, the early reaction has been an expression of resolve to carry on without the Trump administration. The isolation of the US administration at the recent G-7 meetings in Italy over climate change had already pre-shadowed the resolve of the developed world to move on without the US. India and China had similarly already signalled their intention to move ahead regardless of the US decision, as they have long since understood the air pollution, economic, and energy security benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels. The emerging partnership between the EU, China and Canada was another clear sign of how isolated the US administration was becoming on this issue well before the June 1 announcement.
Perhaps most surprising to the casual observer has been the reaction from states and cities in the US and major corporate interests. The reaction has been remarkably similar to that of nation states, a combination of criticism of the decision to withdraw and a resolve to move ahead without the Trump administration. This is in stark contrast to domestic reaction to the Bush abandonment of Kyoto in 2001, a decision which was generally supported by the corporate sector in the US, and which only resulted in limited reaction from states and cities.
What accounts for the different reaction, both globally and in the US, and what are the implications going forward?
Some of the differences in reaction are rooted in the differences between Kyoto and Paris. The Kyoto targets were negotiated, not self-determined. Kyoto set penalties for missing targets, enforced through a strong compliance system. This means countries did not have full ownership of their Kyoto targets, and were rather acting out of a combination of outside pressure to set ambitious targets, meet their targets and the expectation that other countries would have to meet their targets. When the US pulled out, the Kyoto system unravelled because it meant that one key player in this equation would not meet its target.
Paris does not commit Nations to anything they have not voluntarily proposed to take on unilaterally. Under Paris, all countries have made such voluntary, unilateral commitments, not just developed countries. There are no penalties for failing to meet commitments, only transparency. In the short time since Paris was finalized in 2015, there has been a flurry of action in many key countries, with particularly encouraging signs of commitment from China and India. In short, the momentum toward effective implementation of Paris is much more clear in 2017 than it was for Kyoto in 2001.
Fundamental to the momentum toward implementation of Paris is that the economic opportunities and risks of the transition to a GHG neutral world are well understood in 2017, and many solutions are market ready. We know which sectors are at risk, and where the opportunities are. Key countries seem committed to ceasing the opportunities. Their effort to diversify their economies to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels has been underway for some time, reducing economic risks and more clearly identifying where the significant economic opportunities are. The scale of the economic opportunities, as well as the co-benefits of reduced harm from air pollution, and reduced costs for adaptation, disaster response and health care, is much better understood. In 2001, Europe was largely alone in taking advantage of these opportunities. It has since been joined by China, India, and Canada among others. As was demonstrated by the corporate reaction in the US, many US companies also understand the economic opportunities and are poised to pursue them.
In contrast to Kyoto, which focused exclusively on nation states, Paris recognizes the important role of subnational governments and non-state actors. Throughout the negotiating process and in parallel to the formal negotiations, considerable efforts have been made in recent years to engage much more directly with key actors beyond nation states. The reaction to the Trump announcement is a clear signal that these efforts are paying dividends.
It warrants pointing out the obvious, that the scientific context within which the world is reacting to US administration’s withdrawal is very different in 2017 than it was in 2001. Since 2001, the scientific community has become more uniform and clear about the consequences of inaction. Many more citizens in the US and around the world have experienced the harmful effects of climate change first hand. We have a much better understanding of the dire economic, social and environmental consequences of inaction. In many key countries the result of this strong scientific foundation has been to de-politicise the climate issue, meaning that the political debate is about how, not whether to deal with the climate crisis. Inaction, or waiting for the US to re-engage, is simply not an option politically in many countries.
Perhaps the most significant impact of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from Paris is its effect on the US position and influence in the global community. In 2001, the Kyoto Protocol had not come into force, and the US had not yet made a decision to ratify it. As disappointed as other countries may have been that the US decided not to join the Kyoto Protocol, it was its sovereign right to decide whether to join or not. In case of Paris, the US self determined its own commitments, it ratified the agreement, and it was instrumental in bringing the agreement into force. A withdrawal under those conditions does much more harm to the US reputation as a global actor. It sends the message that the US is not a predictable, trustworthy partner in the global community. The resolve of the global community to double down and push ahead without the US is likely just an early sign of the broader consequences for the US of its announced withdrawal from Paris.
The absence of US national leadership on climate change for the term of the Trump administration has been clear since Election Day. The dismantling of national efforts to reduce GHG emissions has been under way for some time. What was revealed on June 1 was the approach Trump would take globally, particularly in light of the importance of the issue to many of the US’s closest allies as clearly expressed only days before at the G-7 Summit. Domestic politics won out over international dimplomacy. The reality is that while Paris was specifically designed to bring the US into the global climate effort, Paris is much more resistant to short term abandonment of the issue by the US than Kyoto was.
The world needs the US to effectively respond to climate change, but the global effort to manage the climate crisis is not dependent on a one-term Trump administration. Much of the potential damage of the June 1 announcement can be mitigated by efforts at state, city and corporate levels in the US in combination with the resolve of Europe, other key developed countries such as Canada, along with emerging economies such as China and India, to push ahead without the Trump administration. Early indications are that this is exactly what is happening.
Professor of Law,
Associate, Marine & Environmental Law Institute