Is the Paris Climate Agreement Dead?

Trump’s new enviro-rollback seeks to undermine the landmark accord, but an America First energy plan might not mean pulling out entirely.

Surrounded by miners from Rosebud Mining, US President Donald Trump (C) applauds after signing the Energy Independence Executive Order at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Headquarters in Washington, DC, March 28, 2017.
President Donald Trump claimed an end to the "war on coal" Tuesday, as he moved to roll back climate protections enacted by predecessor Barack Obama. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Surrounded by miners from Rosebud Mining, US President Donald Trump (C) applauds after signing the Energy Independence Executive Order at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Headquarters in Washington, DC, March 28, 2017. President Donald Trump claimed an end to the "war on coal" Tuesday, as he moved to roll back climate protections enacted by predecessor Barack Obama. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The long-awaited domestic climate policy rollback announced today was as disappointing as environmental advocates had feared. President Donald Trump’s executive order aims to reel back the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s landmark policy aimed at reducing carbon pollution from the electricity sector. It also reopens public lands to coal leasing, eliminates the use of the social cost of carbon in devising federal policies, and erases numerous Obama-era orders, including those aimed at preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change.

These steps, while very concerning, should surprise no one given the platform Trump espoused on the campaign trail. More interesting is the absence of any mention of the landmark Paris Agreement, which was adopted by 197 countries in 2015 to ratchet global carbon pollution to net-zero levels over the course of this century. Trump promised during the campaign to “cancel” that accord, but the realities of governing seem to have given the White House pause. And rightly so — you don’t have to be an environmentalist, or even a Democrat, to appreciate why walking away from the Paris Agreement would harm the material interests of the United States.

To be sure, the measures announced in today’s executive order will make it very challenging, if not impossible, for the United States to meet the first national climate target (“Nationally Determined Contribution,” or NDC in Paris parlance) set by Barack Obama under the Paris terms: a 26 to 28 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2025 compared with a 2005 baseline. Even though U.S. carbon pollution under Obama fell to its lowest levels since 1992, the Rhodium Group estimates that Trump’s policies will stall those reductions at 14 percent below 2005 levels. So by putting our existing NDC out of reach through his domestic policies, did Trump hammer home the final nail in the coffin of U.S. participation in a multilateral agreement he hates anyway? Hardly. In fact, as the president’s advisors now seem to appreciate, Trump has the opportunity to fulfill his campaign promises without undermining the Paris regime that the rest of the world has rallied behind.

A quick recap for those who last tuned in to climate diplomacy during battles over the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto proved to be a dead end, both politically and environmentally, because it required action only by developed countries. The Paris Agreement, by contrast, puts China, India, and other emerging markets on equal footing with the United States. It embraces the idea of national targets (the aforementioned NDCs) set by us, not for us. And although abandoning Kyoto initially drew heavy criticism from the European Union, China, India, and many others, the new approach has attracted national targets from more than 190 countries. Over 120 heads of state personally went to Paris to help seal the deal.

Why do our most important partners, allies, and competitors care so much about the Paris Agreement? Because after 25 years of trial and error, they believe it represents the global community’s best chance of preventing climate change from inflicting unmanageable risk and cost on the global economy. Withdrawing from Paris or the underlying U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change would create a huge diplomatic backlash for the United States and negatively affect the new administration’s ability to achieve an international agenda that asks a lot of our allies and partners, whether on NATO reform or renegotiation of trade agreements. As Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for George W. Bush, said in a recent New York Times interview: “I think it would be a major mistake, even a historic mistake, to disavow the Paris deal. … I can’t think of an issue, except perhaps NATO, where if the U.S. simply walks away, it would have such a major negative impact on how we are seen.” There is already buzz in the international community about imposing trade barriers on the United States if it leaves the Paris Agreement — the same border adjustments the Trump administration is considering imposing on other countries.

Burning valuable political capital and risking a climate-related trade war seems especially unnecessary when one considers the simple, low-key requirements associated with staying in the agreement: Submit some reports, show up to meetings. And team Trump doesn’t need to stay mute. They can find things to be for in the context of international climate talks, such as pressing China on transparency and promoting private-sector investment in clean energy. As for the key U.S. commitment — the NDC — the Obama target doesn’t come due until 2025, after Trump leaves office. But it can certainly be argued that retaining the Obama target is now both politically and scientifically untenable.

Herein lies the opportunity to thread the needle: Trump could indicate that the United States will stay in Paris, but file a new national target. Yes, it would be tricky to submit a new NDC consistent with today’s domestic regulatory rollback that also passes muster with the international community’s idea of ambition. But various options exist. One is to submit a deeper target for a year further out (say 2035) that is based on assumptions about carbon capture and storage.

But the most important reason to stay at the table is the economic prize to be won. In 2014, for the first time in history, more new clean power capacity was installed worldwide than fossil power capacity, and those curves are unlikely to cross again. Wind and solar are already the cheapest forms of energy in much of the United States, and Bloomberg predicts that within a decade, it will be cheaper to build new wind and solar capacity than to keep coal and gas plants running. Sure, they don’t spew air pollutants, but they also enhance local energy security and are less vulnerable to going offline due to natural disasters or terrorism. On the jobs front, solar already employs more Americans in the power sector than oil, gas, and coal combined. Rather than debating whether this stuff is true, politicians should be scrambling to help U.S. businesses promote clean-energy exports to win a maximum share of an $8 trillion global market for wind and solar technologies in the next 25 years.

That’s certainly what China’s leaders are pursuing. China’s conversion from climate foot-dragger to global leader is no goody-two-shoes move. Among the major powers, China is perhaps the most shrewd and rational promoter of its self-interests. Beijing has decided that the global clean-energy transition will actually happen and that all of China stands to benefit. Consider that China’s Paris target requires building 800 to 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of clean energy by 2030. This is equivalent to the entire U.S. electric grid today, or 1 GW per week — a staggering pace that China is on track to meet while building an industrial base to dominate the global market for clean-energy technology. Are we going to let China out-innovate us and shape the global policy regime to its advantage while we argue about the equivalent of whether horses and buggies or automobiles are the future of transportation?

The Trump administration faces a clear choice. Option 1: Stay in a global agreement designed around a bipartisan blueprint, show up to workmanlike talks and file required paperwork no one in Washington will read, and lean in aggressively to the commercial side by promoting U.S. clean-energy exports and investment overseas. Option 2: Withdraw, enrage virtually all our important allies and partners, cede market share to China, and face possible trade retaliation. Regardless of your view on climate change, that is an easy decision. It is no wonder that one of Trump’s closest campaign advisors, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) is making the case for staying in the agreement. Even Exxon seems to agree. Putting “America first” means defending a global agreement that finally holds China to an equal standard while beating them in the race for supremacy in global clean-energy markets.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Bodnar is a managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute and nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter: @bodnarclimate.

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