The Paris Agreement Recap

The President announced last Thursday, June 1, 2017 that on behalf of America’s self interest, he would begin the process to withdraw our nation from the climate agreement signed by 175 nations after COP21 in Paris in 2015. 

This process, under the terms of the agreement President Obama signed last year, is not instantaneous, and will take up to 2020 to complete. But like all international diplomatic arrangements, the paperwork is often a formality and the relationships invaluable. 

The statement by President Trump is diplomatically dangerous: it creates distrust for all future American agreements on the world stage. If one president can simply undo the international work of a previous president, then how are our agreements to mean anything? Reciprocity is the gold standard of international relations, what we do is what is done to us. The President put us on very thin ice with our partners around the world with this announcement, on the heels of his disappointing visit with European leaders at the G7 Conference that led to German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that the US was no longer a nation that could be counted on (http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/05/angela-merkel-speech-after-trump-visit). The President did not withdraw the US from the UNFCCC (the Framework Convention that hosts the COPs) which allowed him to say that we would be back for another round of negotiations, but to what end? This is like dropping a class and then expecting to take the next level class without the prerequisite. 

But what of the actual Paris Agreement itself? The 26 page document signed by President Obama on behalf of the United States laid out several key targets, namely, that the world and each party would strive to keep global temperature rise under 1.5ºC and would commit to no more than 2ºC increase in average temperature. There are many sections pertaining to the way we will forge alliances with frontline communities to do this work, promote reforestation, responsible agriculture, and conserve water, but at the heart of what we were doing in Paris was each nation’s own commitment to the global emissions reduction effort, what was known as the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). 

The US’s INDC rested on 3 key provisions of the Obama’s administrations climate policy: the Clean Power Plan (amendments to the Clean Air Act that allowed the EPA to regulate the emissions of new *and* existing power plants, that would have required states to meet specifically-assigned emissions reductions targets based on their own plan design or a federally created program), vehicle emissions standards (partly a success of the auto manufacturers bailout, the Obama administration used its leverage to require auto manufacturers include highly fuel-efficient vehicles in their fleet), and energy efficiency programs for electronics, appliances, equipment, and buildings. The real bulk of our commitment was in the Clean Power Plan, which would have accounted for nearly half of our emissions reductions of our INDC commitment of 26% by 2025. The CPP is tied up in federal court, but is virtually dead because the new EPA Director Scott Pruitt has no intention of enforcing it, having led the charge to sue the federal government over its very creation. Congress has but to pass a CRA (Congressional Review Act), for which they easily have the votes, and the CPP is dead. 

The Paris Agreement and our INDC were just a *first step.* Much more is necessary to actually meet the 1.5ºC target set in Paris. Every year, countries would be expected to contribute a little more to the plan. So, you can see why backing out now for, as President Trump says, “a better deal” is simply not how this works.

The President attributed his actions to his desire to protect American workers and the economy. This betrays his complete lack of understanding of the problem we face. First, because global climate change will cost the US up to $1 trillion by end of century (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/planetpolicy/2014/09/19/paying-the-cost-of-climate-change/). This global crisis also poses a huge economic opportunity, one that we risk missing, if we double down on our fossil fuel economy like the President has suggested we should. Solar and wind energy are already providing thousands of jobs, more in nearly every state than fossil fuels, but the technology that accompanies these renewable sources in battery storage, transmission, and efficiency is a huge emerging market. America is beginning to and will lose its place as an innovative leader in energy technology if we do not invest now in our own energy future. 

The President mentioned “unlocking energy reserves” in his remarks on Thursday, which is curious given the excess of coal on the market. Right now, coal is risking serious oversupply (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-coal-asia-coaltrans-idUSKCN18B0TL) and with fewer markets to sell to, is facing even more bankruptcies. What about natural gas? Prices have gone up this year because sources of conventional gas are decreasing. More expensive shale gas is increasing, but as the nation’s electric utilities move away from coal and turn to gas, that poses serious cost questions about storage and transportation infrastructure for natural gas. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/arthurberman/2017/05/16/strong-natural-gas-prices-and-tight-supply-in-2017/#679585015d29) Pipelines and storage systems add a tremendous cost to an already volatile and dangerous product, whose extraction is proving a threat to community health, ground water, and earthquakes, all costly impacts on their own. 

Last, the Green Climate Fund is at risk now that we are poised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Part of the understanding reached by nations at COP21 was to acknowledge in a real, monetary way that there is a “carbon debt” owed by the large, industrialized nations of the world who have spent the last 200+ years burning their native cheap, extractible energy resources and building their middle classes because of that. Developing nations want their chance to both lift their people out of poverty, bring electricity to their farthest reaches, and also survive the impacts of climate change that are on their way from the overwhelming carbon dioxide and methane already in the atmosphere that *they did not put there.*

It is unfair to demand that these nations go from Zero-Power to Solar-Power overnight, although some are doing just that! The large industrialized nations needed a way to acknowledge their responsibility to frontline nations (who need aid to relocate high-risk populations) and vulnerable countries who cannot afford the energy systems they need to put in place quickly. It is in all of our best interest and it is with climate justice in mind that the Green Climate Fund was created. The UN hoped to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 in global investments to help nations transition to low-carbon energy and protect communities from climate impacts. It has not raised nearly enough in the first year. The US commitment to the GCF was supposed to be $3 billion by 2020, only $1 billion of which has been paid by the Obama Administration. For reference, total US Federal spending is around $3.9 trillion in 2016 and our current contribution represents 0.00559 percent of U.S. GDP. The current goal for the GCF is $10.3 billion.

The President’s statement that this Fund was a waste and that we would not contribute to it was perhaps the cruelest part of his remarks. It signals that the United State will not only reject solving this global catastrophe going forward, but we refuse to even pay even a little bit to clean up the mess we have made.

In Paris, back in 2015 when we had so much hope that this would be a new chapter in global climate action, I visited the two sides of the COP21 experience: the Green Zone and the Blue Zone. In the Blue Zone, diplomats and prime ministers rushed about to secure side-negotiations with regional caucuses, trade partners, and debate the fine points of the official agreement. Over on the Green side, NGOs and companies, indigenous leaders and activists conferred and listened to panels of experts discuss the hard truths of what had to happen now. As important as the process over on the Blue Zone side was, it definitely felt like the real trailblazing was happening in the Green Zone, which belonged to everyone. The most compelling thing I heard, even after listening to some pretty high-profile names share valuable information, was a rancher from Wyoming named John Fenton, who said “the true power is not in government or politics or the gas and the coal… the true undisputed power in the world is in the individual, to stand together with their fellow man to make a difference.” 

That has never been more true than today. I hope people, organizations, cities, and states take up the mission the world agreed to in Paris and make it their own, despite President Trump, despite the deniers, and despite the feeling of hopelessness. 

#ParisAnyway

- Shannon Anderson, ECI Communications

Shannon Anderson