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Will Trump pull the plug on the Paris Agreement?


Will Trump pull the plug on the Paris Agreement?

Paris smog / Trump climate change

Although the election of President Donald Trump shocked the world, advocates of aggressive action against climate change were particularly alarmed. Trump fiercely opposed the Paris Climate Agreement throughout his campaign and threatened to “cancel” the pact. During the transition, Trump’s international energy and climate policy team even suggested that the new administration was considering ways to bypass a theoretical four-year procedure for leaving the accord.

Trump finally confirmed via Twitter this Saturday that he will make a decision on the matter this week. Activists on both sides of the debate now await the president’s announcement that has been left to hang for months.


The Paris Agreement, which came to force on November 4, 2016, sets out a global action plan to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, and sets ambitious targets to go even further. Signatories acknowledged that, in order to meet the goal, they should aim to peak their greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

Countries such as China and India, the largest and the third largest carbon emitters, have surprised many by accelerating their investments in renewable energy resources, including solar and wind, and reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. According to recent research, both countries should easily exceed the targets they set for themselves in 2015. The unexpected action by these two developing giants has put the indecisive US administration in the spotlight.


Under the Obama administration, the US joined other countries in promising to curb carbon dioxide and other pollutants and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. While the deal was met with fanfare, the election of Trump, who claimed climate change was a hoax created by China during his campaign, cast a heavy shadow over negotiations.

Despite being four months into his presidency, the Trump administration’s policy position remains unclear. In fact, it has become harder to determine what decision Trump will make as both anti- and pro-climate agreement factions have great influence in the White House. On one hand, the anti-agreement faction includes the top US strategist Steve Bannon, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, and Trump’s former environmental transition head Myron Ebell. Yet the pro-climate agreement faction includes the likes of Ivanka Trump – who is also tasked with reviewing the US climate policy – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. Trump’s reticence to declare his position and delay his announcement until after the G7 meeting may be symbolic of the power struggle within the administration.


Behind the scenes, individuals such as Ivanka, Tillerson and Kushner will have been warning President Trump of the national interests he could jeopardise by withdrawing from the climate agreement.

Climate change is one of the few issues on which both China and the US have decided to bury the hatchet in the past. The Obama administration worked hard to get China to co-lead on the issue and the two powers were able to find common ground even when bilateral ties were strained in other areas. Cutting off this clear avenue of cooperation would be detrimental to the Trump administration’s goals, particularly when it is seeking Beijing’s help in reining in North Korea and addressing the US-China trade imbalance.

In a further blow, the US risks losing a significant opportunity to shape climate rules and procedures by rejecting a seat at the negotiating table. Ironically, this could leave the US vulnerable to accepting a ‘bad deal’, similar to those Trump has railed against, should it seek to re-join the climate change accord in the future.

On a more tangible level, if the US does not honour its target, it could face climate trade barriers. In order to keep their domestic products competitive as well as climate friendly, countries such as China and France could impose border tax adjustment on products, depending on their carbon content. This could leave US industries vulnerable to an unstable policy environment and at an economic disadvantage of not being able to harness the benefits of green markets created in the rest of the world.

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Similarly, the US has witnessed a steep curve in solar and wind energy jobs, which have been growing 12 times faster than the US economy overall. A withdrawal would be a huge blow to the US renewable energy industry and could lead to a loss of thousands of jobs. The clean energy industry – natural gas, solar, wind – has also been a big engine of growth, which may be at risk after a withdrawal from the Paris accord. Job creation and economic growth are core Trump promises; losing them would hurt the administration’s popularity.

Finally, a nationally representative survey conducted in November 2016 – just after the election – found seven in ten registered voters, including Trump supporters, believe the US should participate in the agreement. Only 13 per cent saying it should not. Over the past decade, a growing number of Americans have come to realise that global warming is a threat and needs to be addressed, including a swathe of conservative Republicans who have revised their views on the issue. Hence, a withdrawal would put the Trump’s administration’s political fortunes in jeopardy.


Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

If Trump decides to stay, the administration may be tempted to lower its emission targets and continue reaping the benefits of membership at future climate negotiations. However, politically this would amount to diplomatic malpractice impinging on the president and his administration’s credibility. This could, in turn, negatively affect the progress of the future negotiations as other countries might renege on their commitments to achieve the set targets.

Alternatively, the US might choose not to do anything to meet the targets, free riding on the work being done by other countries. Though there would be no specific penalties – the Paris commitments are non-binding in nature – this could again lead to a loss of face in the international sphere.

Clearly, the Trump’s administration will face major setbacks if it decides to leave the Paris Agreement. Yet saving a seat at the table will not provide the US with a bulwark against international backlash if it tries to impede future negotiations. In either case, the ball’s not in Washington’s court.

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