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All is Not Lost: Maintaining Global Momentum on Climate Without the U.S.

The global outlook on climate change shifted radically in less than a week this November. The Paris Climate Agreement came into force on Friday, November 4, 2016. This allowed negotiators from the signatory countries to begin developing the rules of implementation at the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakech on Monday, November 7. This was years ahead of schedule and has challenged negotiators to develop implementation rules when many countries are still working to ratify the agreement.

Image courtesy of semisara, © 2010

Image courtesy of semisara, © 2010

Then on Tuesday, November 8, Donald Trump – a businessman who has called climate change a hoax perpetuated by China – was elected president of the United States, the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

This is undeniably a setback for global progress on climate change. While we don’t yet know exactly what President-elect Trump’s policies will be, he has ridiculed climate action as being bad for the economy. .  As of this writing, his publicized plans for the energy sector are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. In addition, a source from President-elect Trump’s transition team has indicated that he would seek a quick departure from the Paris Agreement. If the four year period for leaving the deal is too long for his taste, as President he could withdraw the United States from its parent treaty, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which would only take one year. President-elect Trump will likely also renege on the Obama Administration’s commitments to give $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

All is not lost, however. No matter what Trump does as President, the deal is in force for all parties that have signed onto it, and the rhetoric out of the COP22 meeting in Marrakech that just concluded signals that the world will forge ahead with the deal. Past concerns about a possible Trump Presidency are credited as one of the motivations for the agreement’s remarkably rapid ratification. France’s Francois Hollande declared the deal “irreversible” on November 15, 2016, and China pledged that they will continue to honor the agreement regardless of what the United States does.

There has also been modest tangible progress in addition to this political momentum. World emissions have remained steady rather than continuing to rise for the past three years.

For the time being, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that the Obama administration will do everything it can to implement the Paris Climate Agreement before the new President-elect takes office in January 2017. While Trump will certainly not strive to meet the United States’ commitments under the Paris Agreement, and may even force the U.S. to leave the agreement, current market trends suggest that the U.S. will not fall as far short of its climate commitments as is feared.

Even if President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is overturned, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects coal to not recover from its decline over the past decade and for renewables, particularly solar, to make up an increasingly large portion of U.S. electricity generation. Households and companies will continue to invest in efficiency, if only for cost savings, and prospects are good for the transportation sector to make significant gains in de-carbonization (through electrification and automation) whether or not they receive federal government support.

Furthermore, the federal government is not the sole supporter of green infrastructure and environmental regulations. The top 30 cities in the U.S. were home to 44% of the country’s population and the source of 50% of country’s GDP in 2010, giving these cities’ building codes, transportation policies, and pollution regulations tremendous influence over the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions. State governments can also  set their own environmental regulations that are stricter than federal regulations, something they will continue to do regardless of the party in the White House. California, for instance, has long lead the country in fuel efficiency standards, and Governor Jerry Brown has said that the state would continue its own climate efforts.

Nonetheless, the international community needs to maintain the momentum of the agreement, especially if the U.S. disengages from it. In a world where most of the largest economies are democracies, there is an ever-present risk that electoral changes may cause countries to unexpectedly leave the agreement..  The U.S. departing could be billed as an aberration, but if another country such as India departs as well, it could be seen as the start of a trend leading to a potential cascade of countries abandoning the agreement.

For the agreement to survive, countries need to continue holding each other accountable and not allow the departure of one country because of a change in electoral politics to become an excuse for other countries to leave. The rules of the Paris Agreement and the resolve of the leading members are going to need to be resilient, forging ahead despite any departures and allowing for countries to quickly rejoin when their internal politics become favorable again.


The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization he is affiliated with.


Benjamin Dills

Benjamin is a Program Assistant with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. He focuses his work on international climate, energy, and sustainable development policy, and he has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for three years. Benjamin holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can connect with him on Twitter @Ben_Dills.
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