Global Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 8 May 2017
Global climate policy in state of flux
The world waits for the United States to decide if it will leave or remain in the Paris Agreement. Either way, global cooperation on climate change is likely to be adversely affected.
The Paris Agreement, adopted by 195 countries with great fanfare in December 2015 and coming into force in November 2016, symbolises the efforts of governments to cooperate to avert disastrous global warming that threatens human survival.
On 29 April, the 100th day of Donald Trump’s presidency, thousands marched in Washington and other cities in the US and around the world to protest against the administration’s about-turn in climate policy.
Trump signed an executive order at the end of March unraveling former President Barrack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of his climate change policy.
The Environmental Protection Agency last week also removed climate change information from its website.
Trump is expected to announce very soon if the US will exit the Paris Agreement. The administration is split, with one camp (that includes EPA chief Scott Pruitt and Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon) wanting the US to quit while others (including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner) advocate the US remaining.
The big change in US climate policy comes at a very bad time. Last month, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time reached above 410ppm (parts per million) in the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.
The level was 280ppm in 1958 and passed 400ppm in 2013. We are inching closer to the 450ppm danger level at which there is only a 50% chance of keeping global temperature rise to 2ºC.
The year 2016 is the hottest on record. Many recent signs of climate change effects include sea level rise; changes in rainfall; more flooding, storms, and drought in different parts of the world; and the melting of glaciers.
The hard-fought Paris Agreement has many flaws, but it is an important achievement. One drawback is that the mitigation pledges made by countries fall far short of limiting warming to 1.5ºC or 2ºC. Instead they would bring about 2.7ºC to near 4ºC temperature rise, according to various estimates, and the effects would be catastrophic.
The agreement also does not contain concrete commitments or plans by developed countries to assist developing countries to tackle climate change. There is no plan or road map to back up the old promise to provide the latter with climate finance of US$100 billion a year by 2020. There is also little left of the old commitment to transfer technology.
However, the Paris Agreement has positive aspects. All countries made pledges to take actions. While participation is thus widespread, differences in obligations as between developed and developing countries remain in the Paris agreement, in line with the Climate Convention.
The agreement mandates that developed countries make greater efforts than developing countries on mitigation, and they are also obliged to provide climate funds to developing countries.
Most important, the Paris agreement is a symbol and manifestation of international cooperation to tackle the climate crisis. Although the overall level of ambition is too low, the agreement has mechanisms to urge members to increase ambition in future.
Without a Paris agreement, there would be no global framework or action plan for the coming decades. The world would be adrift even as the crisis worsens.
What would happen if the US leaves the Paris agreement? It would be a big blow to global cooperation, especially since the US is the top emitter after China, and is also by far a bigger emitter per capita than China and most other countries.
There is also a fear of a contagion effect. Some other countries may follow the US and quit the agreement too.
In an opinion article, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and Harvard Professor Robert Stavins strongly argued that the US must stay inside the Paris agreement, for the sake of the world and for its own interests.
They also point out that even if the US pulls out, this withdrawal will only take effect after four years, due to the rules of the agreement.
While it is impossible to renegotiate the Paris deal, Trump’s officials are ‘discussing leveraging the uncertainty over the US position to boost the White House's policy priorities in future discussions,’ said an article in Politico.
If this happens, the effect may be really adverse. Since we will have the US in the Paris agreement for the next four years at least, it may use this period to weaken further the already low level of ambition of its own actions as well as those of other countries.
Trump has already made clear there will be no more US contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The US will also dampen any discussions on climate financing.
Some people have argued it may better if the US leaves the Paris agreement to prevent it from discouraging all the others that remain from taking action.
There might however be a situation of the worst of both worlds: The US announces it is quitting, thus already damaging global cooperation, then play a spoiler’s game inside, since it will still be a member for four more years.
It was thus heartening that US citizens are protesting against their government’s climate change policies.
It is also important for people and governments in the rest of the world to strengthen their resolve to fight climate change, rather than to relax now that the US leadership is refusing to do its part.
The best solution would be for the US to remain in the Paris agreement, and go along with other countries to meet and improve on their pledges and enable international cooperation to thrive.
That is not going to happen. So we may have to wait at least four years before another US administration rejoins the rest of the world to tackle climate change. Let’s hope it will not be really too late by then to save the world.