Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping reminded his audience that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is “a hard won achievement… All signatories should stick to it rather than walk away.” There was little doubt that President Xi’s remarks were not so much aimed at his audience of the haves and have mores assembled in this picturesque Alpine ski resort, but at the newly inaugurated American President who on the campaign trail vowed to “cancel” the Paris Agreement if elected and in 2012 dismissed climate change as a Chinese “hoax”.
And there is indeed cause for concern that the Agreement, carefully negotiated by the Obama administration to be framed in a way that didn’t require Senate approval, could now be on the block along with a raft of other measures. The reason for this is not just President Trump’s apparent climate change skepticism (“…Nobody really knows…”) which, in effect, equates to denial of this problem given the overwhelming scientific evidence and strong case for decisive action.
He has also nominated fellow sceptic/denier Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), former sceptic Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy (Perry now acknowledges that “some of it” is caused by “man-made activity”) and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. (In 2015, ExxonMobil was found to have engaged in a three-decade campaign to mislead the public on the scientific consensus and reality of climate change despite knowing about the problem and its potentially dangerous consequences as early as the late 1970s.)
In the few days since Donald Trump’s move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, basic information on climate change has been purged from the White House website, an end to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan has been announced (its main element, giving the EPA the power to regulate carbon emissions and set standards for new fossil-fuelled power plants, is currently held up in litigation), the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines have been resurrected (subject to renegotiation), and environmental review procedures have been watered down. Other issues, such as the moratorium on new coal mining leases on public lands and stricter vehicle emissions standards, could be next on the new President’s undo list.
What effect does this flurry of domestic activity have on the Paris Agreement? The nature of the Agreement is such that actual meaning is derived only from what individual country parties are prepared to commit via “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) to an overall emissions reduction pathway that would keep the world within a rise in global average surface temperatures of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This approach, focused on voluntary national action, made agreement among more than 190 signatories possible in the first place and yet in an age of Trump it is proving to be a serious weakness.
The Trump administration doesn’t need to walk away from the Paris Agreement, as President Xi has warned. The process to extricate the United States after the Agreement has already entered into force would take up to four years and waste political capital. Instead, President Trump could simply rescind the ambitious NDC submitted by the Obama administration and replace it with an essentially empty document that doesn’t make any serious commitments to reducing carbon emissions. So could other newly-elected governments elsewhere. This would be bad news for much of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, with some of the worst impacts of unmitigated climate change projected to occur (and in some instances already occurring) in those regions.
And so the real question is not whether the Paris Agreement survives President Trump – it may well do. It is whether the world’s largest economy (by nominal GDP) will contribute to the common goal of climate change mitigation and adaptation in any meaningful way and whether US negligence might encourage others to dial back their own ambitions. Given the urgency of the challenge, four or even eight years of American delay and (federal) inaction seems problematic at best.
However, there are also reasons to be optimistic. First, renewables are booming. With growing global capacity instalments, technologies are maturing, their costs are dropping at an unprecedented pace, and onshore wind and solar PV are now outcompeting coal and gas-fired power generation in many places around the world. The trend towards low-carbon renewable energy sources and away from emissions-intensive fossil fuels is unstoppable. President Trump may want to throw a lifeline to American coal but the inconvenient truth is that in most places, including the US, the coal industry has now entered a phase of terminal decline.
Second, supportive policy environments and initiatives at subnational levels will continue to enable a low-carbon transition. A number of cities and states such as California have already announced they will continue to cut emissions, support renewables and increase energy efficiency. As during the George W. Bush years, states will take the lead where the federal government doesn’t, and, if necessary, take the Trump administration to court over any wilful ineptitude or challenge to state powers in this field.
Third, China has shown its readiness to assume a leadership role. Together with European countries and other supporters of the Paris Agreement, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, largest energy consumer, largest carbon market and largest player in the renewable sector, could form a strong alliance in the fight against global climate change. During the election campaign, candidate Trump slammed China for stealing jobs and undercutting US prosperity, and promised to restore American greatness. It would be ironic if through his actions, including those on climate change, President Trump cemented the transition to a Chinese century.