Trump and the Paris Agreement: better out than in
It would be better for international climate governance if Trump stays out of the Paris Agreement, rather than stays in with a new, weakened deal.
The United States administration appears to be rethinking its 1 June 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, has signalled a shift in tone from the Trump administration, declaring that the US could remain in the Paris climate accord “under the right conditions”.
Tillerson’s statement echoes President Trump’s words when he announced the US withdrawal in a speech at the White House Rose Garden. He said during the speech that the US was ready to “begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the U.S., its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.”
World leaders gather in New York this week for the General Assembly of the United Nations, during which the implementation of the Paris Agreement will be discussed. The US position will no doubt be a major talking point.
Beyond the inevitable political twists however, other nations face a fundamental question over the US position: is it better for the global climate architecture to have the US outside the Paris Agreement, or inside – but with a weaker commitment?
The architecture of the Paris Agreement has shown great resilience to the US withdrawal. A few hours after Trump’s announcement, the European Union and China forged a new alliance to take a leading role in tackling climate change, and many other countries have reaffirmed their commitments. Even India, an originally reluctant signatory, promptly declared its intention to go even beyond its Paris commitment. The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement did not have any domino effect, and seems to have contributed to strengthened global momentum on climate action.
A US decision to stay in the Agreement, but with a new, weakened emissions reduction pledge (ie a watered-down US nationally determined contribution, NDC), could represent a blow to the structure of the Paris Agreement.
Article 4.11 of the Agreement states: “A Party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition in accordance with guidance adopted by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement.”
With this article, negotiators wanted to encourage the Parties to make changes to their commitments in the direction of greater ambition, on the basis of the Agreement’s underlying spirit of raising the climate change mitigation effort over time. However, the negotiators did not insert in the text of the Agreement any clause prohibiting the revision of an NDC to make it less ambitious. So, as outlined by legal experts and former climate negotiators, the US would be legally entitled to revise its NDC downward.
This would be a dangerous political precedent and a major political blow to the underlying spirit of the Paris Agreement. From a practical point of view, it would be preferable for the international climate machinery to advance without the sort of handbrake that this US Administration could represent for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, for instance on international climate finance.
To put it simply, it would be better for international climate governance if Trump stays out of the Paris Agreement, rather than stays in with a new, weakened NDC. On this basis, while convening in Bonn for the COP23 in November, the other Parties should not accept a negotiation offer from the US, but should rather seize the reinforced global climate momentum generated by the US withdrawal announcement to speed-up the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
Such an approach would be the best option in terms of minimising harm to the climate, as the US will anyhow continue to reduce its emissions as a result of energy market trends (ie coal-to-gas switch, declining competitiveness of coal, declining costs of renewables), which are not affected by the US’s lack of political commitment.
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