US Paris withdrawal: where now for climate action?

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14 June 2017

President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement elicited a collective sigh of despair from the environmental community. But his action creates opportunities as well as challenges.

President Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in front of an audience of administration officials and supporters who had been gathered in the White House Rose Garden (Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House)

With President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the United States defaulted on their global responsibility to cooperate on climate action.

US withdrawal is certainly bad news. Combined with his repeal of domestic legislation on climate change, it will mean global temperatures will further increase by 0.3°C.

The most vulnerable nations will face increased climate impacts. In the US, millions of citizens already affected by floods, hurricanes and droughts will face further loss and damage. And the decision will make achieving the target of holding warming well below 2°C, and further efforts to pursue a more ambitious target of 1.5°C, more difficult and costly.  

Nevertheless there are reasons to be optimistic

Trump's announcement is neither definitive nor final. According to the provision of the Paris Agreement, a formal withdrawal submission is subject to an initial waiting period of at least three years and a further year is needed before withdrawal can become effective (November 2020 at the earliest). Who knows what might happen by then?

And Trump's withdrawal could be perceived as an own goal as it has galvanised opportunities for climate leadership by other states and actors – and allows them to take advantage of the business opportunities presented by low-carbon economies.

He probably didn’t plan it this way, but in fact Trump has managed to...

1. Strengthen the resolve of other nations 

Instead of copycat action by other nations, the US announcement prompted a reassertion of commitment to Paris from every continent. European leaders announced that they were meeting with their Indian and Chinese counterparts to agree cooperation on clean energy and green infrastructure. And the 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) expressed their continued commitment to climate action. 

2. Encourage bottom-up action

The decision by the federal government has galvanised unprecedented leadership by state governments, cities and businesses inside the US. Already, the governors of California, New York, and Washington have formed the United States Climate Alliance, bringing together 10 US states (so far) to uphold the Paris Agreement and take climate action. Such increased action may well mean at least some US emission targets are still achieved.

This bottom-up leadership in the US also builds on other global pledges by states, provinces, regions, cities and businesses to reduce emissions and invest in climate solutions through the Under2 MOU coalition, the Compact of Mayors, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, and the We Mean Business Coalition.

3. Push climate change up the diplomatic agenda

The withdrawal has focused attention on climate change and helpfully pushed it back up the diplomatic agenda – at the same time as the US is isolated it will be excluded from forums such as the 2019 global world leaders' summit that will be organised by the UN Secretary General, or those meetings of the High Ambition Coalition, where progress and opportunities will be discussed.

It has also created a gap to allow the poorest countries to exercise more leadership in climate diplomacy, and encouraged greater cooperation between all Paris signatories. 

4. Put energy behind negotiations on the Paris rulebook

It's not clear what role the US would take in the ongoing negotiations of the Paris Agreement rulebook, which is vital to promote compliance and drive ambition. But the collective willingness of other countries to agree on comprehensive and robust rules may well now be stronger as a result of the US withdrawal. 

5. Deliver business opportunities to other countries

Low carbon increasingly represents good business. The countries with the highest emissions are closing down coal plants and rethinking plans to build new ones. Renewable energy prices are falling and uptake is exceeding all expectations. Economics are on the side of climate action. 

The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiative of the LDC Group, which negotiates on behalf of the 48 LDCs in the UN climate talks, demonstrates that even the poorest countries are taking this path. States and nations such as Hawaii, Myanmar, Malawi, and Angola have already taken initiatives to ensure national-level policies and legislations are in place to implement the Paris Agreement, giving certainty to investors and allowing them to reduce emissions and boost their economies. 

6. Provide an opportunity to improve climate finance

Trump has suggested he will not honour US commitments on climate finance. While this is woeful, the US has already shown itself to be dragging its feet, with only one third of its US$3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund delivered so far. 

But in any case, IIED research shows only eight per cent of global climate finance had been disbursed by 2016, with very little reaching the poorest countries and the local level where it is needed most and where it can be most effective. 

The withdrawal of US funding highlights the importance of making sure climate finance work as hard as possible – and an opportunity for donors to commit to get finance to the poorest countries and the poorest people.

So where does that leave us? 

Trump's decision on Paris was a huge blow to the climate community but it has also created opportunities to galvanise stronger developing country leadership and encourage more opportunities for non-governmental actors to take ambitious climate action.

We still hope the US will reverse the decision or decide to quickly rejoin the Paris Agreement, but in the meantime there are numerous countries, businesses, communities, civil society groups and others stepping up to fill the gap.

President Trump may begin to feel he has been left out in the cold.

Clare Shakya (clare.shakya@iied.org) is director and Achala C Abeysinghe (achala.abeysinghe@iied.org) is principal researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group. Abeysinghe is an expert on legal issues in international climate change negotiations and currently legal and technical adviser to the chair of the Least Developed Countries Group for the UNFCCC.

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