On Thursday, June 1st, President Trump announced that the United States will be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. This is big news.
The Paris what?
In 2015, 195 countries signed the Paris climate agreement, committing to limit global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial temperatures of 1890-1900, with a stricter goal of limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees.
The Paris agreement was signed by all nations but two – Nicaragua (which is responsible for approximately 0.03% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions), and Syria (which, before the war began in 2011, was responsible for 0.19%). The United States is currently the second-highest contributor of GHG emissions, after China. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2014 the US was responsible for 15% of the world’s GHG emissions, hosting just over 4% of the world’s population. So the US is a pretty big player when it comes to emissions, and dropping out of the accord will make a pretty big difference re: results.
Why do these results matter?
The 2 degree limit was chosen based on scientific evidence suggesting that any increase above 2 degrees would present a “point of no return” wherein the planet would be bound to experience rising sea levels, drought, flooding, water shortages and storms, to name a few repercussions. In the long run climate change would reduce the portion of the planet that can support humans (as well as certain plants and animals), would destroy ecosystems such as coral reefs, and would lead to food shortages. Picture: increased desert and ocean, decreased grassland and ice caps.
What makes the Paris agreement such a big deal?
Climate agreements of the past have targeted developed countries as having the means to reduce emissions, while allowing developing countries to prioritize economic growth. The Paris agreement was the first major accord to include all players, with each having an individual plan (“Nationally Determined Contributions”) for emissions reductions. The United States’ plan under President Obama was to reduce emissions to 26-28% below their 2005 levels by the year 2025, and to contribute $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund in order to assist the facilitation of the agreement in developing countries. Canada, responsible for around 1.6% of global emissions, has committed to reducing annual emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Why is the US choosing to withdraw?
The US withdrawal from the Paris agreement is true to President Trump’s campaign promise to do exactly this. Boasting an “America first” policy, President Trump has suggested that the economic burden of the commitment would negatively impact Americans, especially affecting middle-class employment. This doesn’t mean, however, that he is ignoring all environmental matters (despite past expression of doubt toward the concept of climate change). Throughout his campaign, President Trump focused on clean water as one of the most important issues in America, and has suggested that the money saved by withdrawing from the Paris agreement will be used to improve water and environmental infrastructure within US borders.
So what does this mean for America, and for international relations?
There are mixed reviews. Some, such as Ivo Daalder (President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US representative to NATO), suggest that President Trump’s decision will put to question the role of the US as an international leader, leaving space for China to gain control. David Victor, Director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, has also suggested that the US will find it more difficult to advance its interests as other countries become less willing to engage with the nation. However, there are others who suggest that America continues to lead by example in taking this firm stance on climate change and Hobbesian individualism at a national level.
Will other countries follow suit?
Whether or not America’s stance as global leader is at risk remains to be seen, but many other predominant countries and areas, such as China, India and the European Union, have made it clear that they intend to pursue their commitments under the Paris agreement regardless of the US withdrawal. Here in Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau has expressed his disappointment in President Trump’s announcement, and has confirmed Canada’s unwavering commitment to the agreement.
Our Prime Minister isn’t the only one disappointed; Elon Musk (Chief Executive Officer of Tesla Inc.) and Robert Iger (CEO of Walt Disney Company) have announced that they will be leaving their seats on the White House Business Advisory council as a result of President Trump’s decision. On the other side, supporters of the decision include American businesswoman and politician Betsy DeVos (a proponent of deregulation), who supports the president’s choice to repeal what she calls the “unrealistic and overreaching regulatory actions by the previous Administration”.
How does the withdrawal work?
The agreement is a combination of both legally binding and non-binding provisions, according to the UN, and there are no set consequences for failing to meet commitments. However, it is possible that the US will face carbon tariffs imposed by other countries bitter about its exit from the deal. President Trump can either request a formal withdrawal (a 4-year process) or withdraw from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change altogether, but either way will have no obligation to participate in climate talks moving forward.
By: Jacklym Tuckey, Student-at-Law