November 9 will likely become the day that the Paris Agreement died, but not when the goal of limiting warming to 2℃ slipped out of reach.
President Donald Trump can, and likely will, drop out of the Paris climate agreement. Direct withdrawal will take four years.
But Trump could instead drop out from the overall climate convention under which the agreement operates. That would only take one year and would result in automatic withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
It would shortcut any hopes that Paris would bind Trump’s hands for some time.
As I’ve argued in my research, a US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would be its death knell.
A predictable loose cannon
Trump has also promised a range of further destructive international and domestic actions on climate and energy. These include cutting all international climate financing, rescinding energy regulations, reopening federal and offshore areas for coal and oil development and abolishing the clean power plan.
There is some hope that Trump is a loose cannon who may renege on his previous promises. Such hope is ultimately false. Trump has already appointed noted climate denier Myron Ebell as the head of his Environmental Protection Agency transition team.
More importantly, the Republican establishment supports this approach to climate policy. The agreed Republican platform of July rejects the Paris Agreement and calls for it to be submitted to the Senate (where it would be defeated) as well as an end of all funding to the UN climate convention. Their domestic policies are best summarised as “drill, baby, drill!”
It is foolish to believe that Trump would oppose his own party, and many of the voters of the US “rust belt” whose support he relied on, in an attempt to save the Paris Agreement.
Trump may be unpredictable in some regards, but his approach to climate change is not.
Counting the losses
Trump’s climate policy would lead to the US overshooting its already inadequate 2030 climate targets. The US needs additional measures on top of the Clean Power Plan to meet the targets established by Obama.
The US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, or blatantly missing its climate targets, could be near fatal for a deal which relies on global ambition. The Paris Agreement relies on two things: increasing ambition through peer pressure, and a signal to markets and the public.
Both peer pressure and the signal will be shredded by a rogue, Trump-led United States.
States will be unlikely to feel pressured if the world’s second largest greenhouse emitter is polluting unabated. The effects of US recalcitrance were all too clear in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States simply refused to ratify. Trust would be undermined and excuses for inaction amplified if the US abandons international efforts again.
Any signal that existed from the framework of Paris would be largely extinguished. Already fossil fuels stocks have surged post-election despite a downturn in the rest of the market. Renewable energy share prices have plummeted. The idea of the signal hinged on broad participation creating investor confidence in international law. US withdrawal and the breaking of commitments will shatter any belief that investors may have had in Paris.
The Paris Agreement sacrificed binding emissions cuts and finance in order to ensure US participation. The few benefits it had were derived from broad participation, including from the United States. Such benefits will be lost by a US dropout.
Paris will likely survive as a structure. Countries will continue with the global show-and-tell, trading unbinding pledges every five years for some time to come. It will go on, but it will cease to be a large source of hope or change.
Opportunities for the future
A Trump presidency will also create opportunities for renewed action internationally.
Trump promises to usher in an age of protectionism, scrapping free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He has vowed to brand major trading partners such as China as “currency manipulators”.
At the same time nationalism and discontent with free trade have surged in Europe. China has scaled up its domestic renewable energy and climate policies and is looking to formally establish a national emissions trading scheme next year.
Both a protectionist Trump administration that has dropped out of Paris and trends in the European Union and China could bring the idea of climate trade measures back to the table.
The Paris Agreement could be amended to use trade measures against countries who are not part of the deal. Such a move could not be adopted until the next conference in November 2017. Amending the agreement would only require a three-quarters majority vote, but is still unlikely to garner the support to be adopted under the painfully slow and convoluted UN process.
Climate trade measures from the EU and or China are much more likely. The EU may be pushed by Trump’s trade policies towards imposing a carbon price on imports (carbon border tax adjustments) from the US and others. China may consider a similar move. The two could even act in tandem, creating their own bilateral climate club outside of the Paris Agreement. Such material penalties would likely force the US to eventually shift and reengage with international efforts.
Such an outcome seems unlikely for now, particularly in the politically paralysed Europe. But Trump at least opens the opportunity for such change.
The much maligned Trump will supercharge climate civil disobedience in both the US and around the globe.
The world’s best chance of avoiding dangerous global warming are a climate trade war and rampant climate disobedience.
Such actions will be more beneficial for the climate than the current Paris Agreement ever could have been. The incremental and baseless pledge and review of Paris Agreement would have never been enough to trigger the herculean transition needed.
The 2016 US election will almost certainly become the epitaph for the success of the Paris climate agreement. But it does not mean that 2℃ is necessarily out of reach; the future may not depend on the actions of an ageing superpower.