Commentary: Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement hurts the US

Commentary: Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement hurts the US

In a world where more jobs are going to renewable energy and countries are paying serious attention to climate change, US President Donald Trump's announcement risks leaving the US behind.

BERLIN: In the short term, the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will certainly have ripple effects globally. But rather than fatally undermine the Paris Agreement, it will likely cause other countries to reaffirm their firm commitment to the full implementation of the climate deal.

In the White House rose garden, President Trump said he wanted to start to renegotiate to see “if there’s a better deal”. “If we can, great. If we can’t, that’s fine”, he added.


Some might be tempted to draw an analogy with the Kyoto Protocol, which President George W. Bush famously repudiated also in the White House rose garden, following pressure from fossil-fuel interests, notably Exxon.

China made extensive use of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) -- created under the Kyoto
China has made extensive use of the Clean Development Mechanism created under the Kyoto Protocol to set up green projects such as wind farms and small hydro-electric projects. (Photo: AFP/Liu Jin)

The lessons from this analogy do not flatter the US. Although the Kyoto Protocol did not meet its full potential as a consequence of US non-participation, countries that engaged actively in its implementation not only succeeded in achieving the emission-reduction targets they set for themselves, but are much better positioned now to take advantage of the necessary transition to a low-carbon future.

As a result of the Kyoto engagement, the European Union’s legislative climate-policy framework is now the most comprehensive and far-reaching in the world. The EU now has all the tools needed to deliver the greater ambition that will be needed.

Learning from the Kyoto experience, China, Korea, Mexico, Chile and other developing countries are also now putting in place emissions-trading systems that will generate cost-effective emission reductions in the future.


The world of 2017 is a very different place from what it was in 2001. Back in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, the US accounted for 19 per cent of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and 20 per cent of the world economy whereas China accounted for only 12 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.

By 2015, when the Paris Agreement was adopted, China had grown to become the largest emitter (23 per cent) and the largest economy (17 per cent), with the US accounting for a proportionately lower share of global emissions (13 per cent) and a smaller share of the world economy (16 per cent).

India, a rising power of the 21st century, had nearly doubled its relative economic weight over this period (from 4 to 7 per cent of the world economy). Both China and India are now seizing the future, working to manage their emissions pathways while growing their economies and creating thousands of green jobs through massive investments in renewable energy and plans to move towards electric vehicles by the end of the next decade.

Leadership and economic growth is now finding a new center of gravity – one in which the US risks being left further and further behind.

File photo of workers cleaning photovoltaic panels inside a solar power plant in Gujarat
Workers clean solar panels inside a solar power plant in Gujarat, India. (Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave)

The scientific understanding of climate change and its effects on natural systems, human societies and economies has also progressed immensely since 1997 and engaged much larger communities including regions, cities and businesses. Climate change is emerging as a geopolitical issue alongside more traditional geopolitical concerns and, depending on how a country deals with its role and the problem, its geopolitical standing is affected. China has begun to move into the space, tentatively, but nevertheless with effect.

In other words, the US is less important and less fundamental than it used to be in the sphere of climate policy action.

Public opinion in many parts of the world may also be re-invigorated in favour of strong climate action, as a positive effect of the much-elevated attention for climate change as a global problem in the press and social media. Employment in the renewable energy industry is growing

It is clear that Trump’s promises to the coal-industry workforce cannot be met. Coal use and mining is projected to continue declining because of changes in the energy markets, including lower natural-gas prices and overwhelming competition on price from renewables and storage.

On the other hand, employment in the renewable energy industry is growing rapidly in the US (and around the world), and far exceeds that in coal mining. The latest review by the International Renewable Energy Agency shows rapid growth of employment in the US renewable energy sector, now employing approximately 800,000 people.

Steam escapes from the cooling tower of the Tihange nuclear power station, one of the two large-sca
Steam escapes from the cooling tower of a power plant. (Photo: Reuters)

The increase in employment in solar energy alone over the past three years is more than twice the total number of jobs in the coal mining industry in the US, which is on the decline. This remarkable development contains a lesson for the future: Maintaining the growth of job opportunities requires a continued rollout and expansion of renewable energy. If this does not happen, job opportunities will be lost.


President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, combined with the repeal of domestic US actions that were supposed to reduce US emissions further, will likely make it more difficult and costly overall to meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding the global average temperature increase well below 2°C and limiting it to 1.5°C.

If sustained, additional US GHG emissions could add an additional warming of about to 0.1 to 0.2°C by 2100. This will need to be compensated by larger and faster reductions by others than would otherwise be necessary.

In the longer term, the Paris Agreement temperature goals are not likely to be met unless the US rejoins global efforts within the next five to 10 years, so that globally aggregated carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced to zero by around mid-century.

Working against Trump's fossil fuel–driven agenda are profound market developments in renewable energy and battery storage, affecting demand for coal-fired power. Recent industry assessments show that the estimated average cost of electricity from many renewable technologies is now lower than gas or coal in the USA.

More broadly, the ongoing cancellation of planned coal power plants in India, China, Japan, South Korea and other places is indicative of the market transformation that is beginning.

In reaction to uncertainty about US intentions, the EU and China are coming closer together on climate and energy, united around the implementation of the Paris Agreement. 

Many more countries are also beginning to realise the great risks and costs that climate change will bring unless global warming is addressed. In Marrakech, over 45 countries belonging to the Climate Vulnerable Forum committed to ambitious renewable energy goals and are beginning to work on how to achieve this.


Nevertheless, there will be countries, political parties and fossil-fuel interests that will attempt to use US withdrawal to advance a climate denialist agenda, or at the least seek ways to defend the market dominance of fossil-fuel industries.

The US withdrawal may lead a number of countries to lag in ramping up their climate pledges (NDCs or Nationally Determined Contributions) under the Paris Agreement or go slow on implementing policies.

Another risk relates to the large global pipeline of coal plant proposals, which – if built and operated – would curtail any chance of holding warming well below 2°C and limiting to 1.5°C. Coal is projected to grow rapidly in India, Southeast Asia, Turkey, parts of the Middle East and Africa.

It will take concerted diplomatic leadership, as well as courageous domestic action to ensure that this does not come about. To be sure, such a task would be difficult even with the US in the agreement, but a US withdrawal has made it a little harder.

One of the questions now is to know if the US can find a way to engage any new negotiations. The longer the US remains idle, the harder it will be for all of us. So what are the prospects of the US rejoining the agreement?

Paris climate deal
195 countries gathered in the French capital to conclude the first truly universal climate treaty, the Paris Agreement, aimed at preventing the worst-case scenarios of global warming, in December 2015. (Photo: AFP)

Looking beyond the next three to four years, rising levels of public concern and anxiety over climate change, as well as accelerating employment from the renewable energy industry give grounds for optimism.

If Trump doesn’t come back to the agreement, we will have to wait until 2020 to see what happens. A new US President could seek to re-enter the climate deal quickly to catch up with the new market leaders, likely China, the EU and India, and to recover its political, technological and economic leadership that will be squandered by the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

With this outlook in mind, many countries, companies and civic society are expected to move ahead with climate action over the next few years, and if successful, the US may well be in a position to catch up quickly once the Trump period passes.

Bill Hare is Visiting Scientist at the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read it here.

Source: CNA/sl