On climate change, the U.S. had ‘already jumped ship’

As the U.S. announces it is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, Matthew Hoffmann argues it had already abandoned leadership on climate change. That’s why other countries — such as Canada and China — and corporations need to step up.

By: , /
May 31, 2017
Paris Agreement
The Eiffel tower is illuminated in green with the words "Paris Agreement is Done", to celebrate the Paris U.N. COP21 Climate Change agreement in Paris, France, November 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen/File Photo

With Donald Trump's announcement Thursday that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, many weighed in this week on what U.S. disengagement means for the future of the pact.

“It’s a mess,” David Roberts wrote for VOX, on the debate within the Trump administration over the decision. Roberts argued that there was no real reason for the U.S. to withdraw: “Trump can weaken the US NDC [Nationally Determined Contribution], without penalty. He can roll back all of Obama’s carbon regulations, without penalty. He can simply fail to meet the targets of the NDC, without penalty."

The view that the country should remain part of the accord is shared by the majority of Americans, a study by Yale University recently found.

But many outside the country are now considering the idea that it would be inconsequential or even beneficial for the U.S. withdraw.

This is not the end of the world,” a senior EU official told The Guardian, as Europe and China signal stronger cooperation on their efforts to promote a low-carbon economy.

Matthew Hoffmann, co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, says none of the options were ideal but agrees there could be an opportunity with the U.S. out of the deal. In the days before Trump's decision, he explained to OpenCanada why, in or out, the world shouldn't rely on the U.S. for climate leadership.

You make the case the commitment to the Paris Agreement could be watered down if the U.S. were to stay on. Can you explain?

If the U.S. were to stay in the Paris Agreement it would do so while also arguing that it could ratchet down the commitments for emissions reductions that it made when it signed the Agreement. In addition, it would likely also pull back all its funding pledges for both adaptation and the Global Climate Fund. So if the U.S. were to stay, you would have a major player in the negotiations defending reduced commitments and pulling the funds that are key for the North-South bargain at the heart of the agreement. These combined actions could make the negotiations more contentious and lead other countries to reconsider their commitments. 

Is there a risk other countries will not feel obligated to act if the world's second largest carbon emitter isn't on board?

Yes. Let me be clear, we are in the realm of bad choices here. Either a hostile U.S. looking to abandon its commitments stays in the Paris Agreement or a hostile U.S. looking to abandon its commitments exits. Currently, we don't have an option for the U.S. staying in and acting responsibly, so the world’s second largest carbon emitter has already jumped ship. So the question is which bad option is riskier in term of other countries acting? I think it is possible that an isolated U.S. outside the agreement may have less of an impact on other countries’ actions.

What are the next steps for the Paris Agreement?

The agreement came into force in November 2016. In 2018, the parties to the agreement will undertake an initial ‘stock take’ to assess the collection of nationally determined contributions that each party has pledged against the broad goals of the agreement. Then starting in 2023, there will be an assessment every five years to assess progress and encourage ratcheting up of commitments. In addition, the parties are still working to develop procedures for monitoring countries’ progress and for adaptation and innovation funding. 

A Canada-Europe-China climate meeting has been announced for September. Is that group who you see as taking leadership here? Any other actors that may prove crucial to moving the agenda forward?

Yes, this was a welcome development in this era of lost U.S. leadership. China, especially, seems eager to fill the void of climate leadership, while Canada and the Europeans have been steadfast in their support of the Paris Agreement. This will have to continue if the Paris Agreement is to weather the Trump administration’s hostility toward climate change (regardless of whether the U.S. quits or, unexpectedly, stays). India is likely to be another key player given their growing demands for energy and interest in renewables. 

Beyond countries, it will be crucial for corporations, non-governmental organizations, and sub-national governments (cities, U.S. states, Canadian provinces) to continue to accelerate their actions. These actors came to the forefront of the global response to climate change when the U.N. negotiations were at a standstill in the 2005-2014 period. They will need to be leaders again. Myriad corporations urged the Trump administration to stay in the Paris Agreement. They will now have to put their actions where their words are and act responsibly on climate change in the absence of U.S. national leadership. 

This article was modified June 1.