Tue | Jul 17, 2018

Byron Blake | So what if US pulls out of Paris Accord?

Published:Sunday | June 11, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Byron Blake

On June 1, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the historic Paris climate agreement of December 2015. Candidate Trump had promised to do it, and the United States is notorious among developed countries for not signing, not ratifying, and for withdrawing from international agreements and organisations. This should, therefore, come as no surprise.

In 2002, the United States withdrew from the path-breaking Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that had slowed the nuclear arms race, signed but did not ratify, and then unsigned the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that gave operational effect to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The US also refused to sign the 1992 Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste Disposal and the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court and withdrew from UNESCO in 1992.

So what is new and surprising? Why are the vast majority of Americans, including the academic and business communities, surprised?

There are a few good reasons.

First, the Paris Agreement met all the key objectives of the United States, and, at the same time, removed the pressure on it as the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases in the post-industrial period with 29 per cent, compared with the European Union (as a group) with 27 per cent, and Russia and China with eight per cent each. In spite of its level of pollution, the United States refused to move to implement its commitment in the 1992 RIO Agreement, insisting that developing countries that it deemed major emitters such as China and India should also undertake reduction commitment. This, although these countries' per capita emissions were fractions of the United States's.

The Paris Accord has all but three countries, including the small island developing states, some of which face existential threats, undertaking reduction commitments. The Paris Accord not only relieved the US of its historical debt to the Earth, but gave it sole discretion over its Nationally Determined Contribution.




Second, as was the case with President Bush and the Kyoto Protocol, President Trump claims serious harm to the US economy, but the facts do not support him. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, where the potential economic impacts were a matter for rational debate, the current situation is clear. In the 25 years since the RIO Summit, and, in particular, in the last decade with the manifest and costly impacts of climate variability-related phenomena, the United Stated has, by policy and action, transformed itself into a significantly green economy.

It has become a major player in green-energy technology, including solar and wind technology; reduced the energy intensity of many of its industries,; transformed its coal and steel industries through technological developments for efficiency; and increased the substitution of its own natural gas in its electricity and transportation energy mix.

These industries are delivering a larger number of cleaner, healthier, and better-paying jobs in the US economy than jobs lost in the old polluting industries. The US is already in a position to be a leader in research and a major exporter of clean energy and energy technologies. States like California and cities such as Pittsburgh have made the switch. Withdrawal from the global consensus could put pressure on US companies seeking to market their products globally.

Third, the United States has been losing ground as a global provider of investment capital, as well as loans and technical assistance, and also as a market for industrial raw materials. The vacuum has been effectively filled by China.

Cleaner-energy technologies open a new avenue for United States companies. These companies can see that bright future slipping away if they must now compete in a hostile environment in which companies from countries such as China, India, and Germany enjoy better market access. They are not amused.

It's an ill wind that does no one any good, as the old adage goes. Well, President Trump's unilateral and unprovoked public withdrawal from the Paris Accord and his alienation of his fellow G-7 partners might be the best news for planet Earth and for small island developing and low-lying coastal states (SIDS).

Truth is that while the 28 target in the Paris Accord was what the negotiations could bear at that level, the planet and several small island developing states remain in great danger. The silent hope, especially of the SIDS, was that success and good sense would encourage an early movement towards the more sustainable 1.58 urged by the Alliance of Small Island States and recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change.

In a situation where the United States remained an active member, this Trump administration would, in all probability, seek to negotiate a slowing of progress even towards the Paris target. The other developed countries would do what they always did in such situations: seek to accommodate the United States to keep it in the fold. Negotiating as a group including the United States, they would then pressure the Group of 77 and China to accept less-ambitious targets. That formula has worked every time.

Fortunately, no one in the United States told President Trump, who has no experience of inter-governmental multilateral negotiations. By removing the United States from a central position and embarrassing his traditional allies, he has created an opportunity for the rest of the international community not only to close ranks, but to work with a coalition of that large bloc of states, cities, corporations, academics, and non-governmental organisations in the United States, which disapproves, of the president's action to achieve the target of the Paris Accord. The objection to President Trump's irrational behaviour and the inherent opportunity for economic and diplomatic advantage might even lead some major countries to make greater voluntary commitments.

It is not beyond the imagination that the business community in the United States might do what the Hollywood movie makers did in 2002. When that Hollywood community realised that it could be placed at a disadvantage from provisions being negotiated in the Convention on Cultural Diversity in UNESCO, where the US had ceded standing with its withdrawal 10 years earlier, it simply pressured the Bush administration to rejoin UNESCO.

SIDS, including CARICOM states, should, therefore, instead of bemoaning President Trump's selfish action, use the opportunity to promote and encourage a more collaborative and cooperative strategy within the rest of the global community that will really put planet Earth first - to borrow the language of the new French president.

- Jamaican ambassador Byron W. Blake was G-77 and China lead negotiator on sustainable development and climate change in 2005 and 2008.

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