The Climate vs. Donald Trump


On 7 November, as governments reconvened in Marrakech for the first major round of climate talks since the momentous Paris summit, they had the wind in their sails. The sense of momentum that had built in the run-up to Paris had continued, with recent global deals to phase out HFCs (potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning) and tackle emissions from aviation. However, by the morning of 9 November the mood changed to one of unease and trepidation, as news of Donald Trump’s US election victory sunk in. Only days after entering into force, the Paris Agreement was faced with the possibility of the world’s second largest emitter, and a key dealmaker and architect of the regime, withdrawing.

Although details of Trump’s positions on climate and energy policy are scarce, his statements on the campaign trail appear to signal a marked departure from the Obama administration’s approach. The president-elect has said he would ‘cancel’ the Paris Agreement and ‘rescind’ the Climate Action Plan which underpins US action to reduce emissions. On the basis of these statements, it is hard to view the election result as anything other than a major setback for the climate. The new international climate regime now faces a very early and very big test.

Paris’s first test

The response from governments has been swift. Statement after statement emphasized a clear and consistent message: countries remain committed to the Paris Agreement and to delivering their emissions reductions. While there is hope that the US will remain a part, the message was that the process will continue regardless. Importantly, there have as yet been no indications that recusant parties to the agreement might use a US withdrawal as cover to do the same.

This display of unity is arguably Marrakech’s defining success. Progress in talks to flesh out the so-called ‘rulebook’ for how the Paris Agreement will operate come 2020 was modest in some areas and disappointing in others; on finance, the perennial tensions between developed and developing countries were as clear as ever. But when the time came to uphold the nascent regime in the face of a threat, powerful international norms on climate action meant there were no divisions.

Two important questions

The prospect of US disengagement from the international regime, whether de jure or de facto, raises two important questions: one for the US and another for the rest of the world.

For the international community, the question is one of leadership. In the run-up to Paris, the US and China together set expectations for a global agreement, signalling their intent through a series of joint announcements that set the bar for ambition and carried other countries with them. Progressive countries hoped this partnership would re-emerge in 2018, when talks begin on closing the gap between national emission reduction plans and what is needed to achieve the Paris goal of containing warming ‘well below’ 2°C. A wholesale step change in ambition is required if the 2°C goal is to remain within reach, requiring intense climate diplomacy of the kind witnessed before Paris. Will China be prepared to unilaterally set the pace and raise ambition first? Will a new partner come forward, or new coalition emerge, to fill the vacuum left by the US and work alongside China to provide leadership?

The US faces a question of national interest. With the rest of the world apparently united on climate change, what costs might the US incur were it to withdraw from the global regime? To fly in the face of strong international norms on climate action would certainly erode American soft power and concede global status to China, which continues to signal its ambition to decarbonize. And with the US expected to take a more protectionist approach to trade, it is possible that other countries, frustrated at US free-riding on the emissions reductions of others, might impose tariffs on American imports to adjust for the lower emissions costs of US exporters. Nor will American prosperity be served by the US economy remaining shackled to fossil fuels while the rest of the world’s economy transitions away from them. All countries stand to lose if the US backslides on climate change, most of all the US.

Rob Bailey became director of the Energy, Environment and Resources Department in 2014, having joined as a senior research fellow in 2011 from Oxfam GB where he was responsible for policy on food security, trade, agriculture and climate change.

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