SPECIAL COP22 – Is US climate policy history repeating itself?

After Donald Trump won the US presidential election of Nov. 8, conjectures and questions are growing on how US climate policy might change after the new administration takes office in January 2017.

During his campaign, President-elect Trump has repeatedly promised to dismantle most of the climate legislation and initiatives put forth by the Obama administration, such as the Clean Power Plan (currently frozen by the US Supreme Court until legal challenges to the regulation are completed). He also said he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement, according to which the United States should reduce its emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025. An unnamed source on Trump’s transition team told Reuters that Trump is already considering options to quickly exit the accord.

There are three possible scenarios of how US, after having become a global climate champion during the Obama presidency, can pull back. The first is to withdraw from the Paris Agreement but it will take four years to complete the process, the full period of the Trump administration. The second is to withdraw from the UNFCCC: a very radical decision that would make US free from any climate obligation in just one year. Third, the new US president may simply ignore the commitments taken under the Paris agreement, undermining the global momentum that is essential to transform the Paris deal into actions.

In the past days, both US State Department’s special envoy for climate change Jonathan Pershing and US Secretary of State John Kerry declined to speculate on what Trump might do about the Paris Agreement. Kerry said that the current administration intends to “do everything possible” before Trump takes office, Reuters reports. The White House on Wednesday (Nov. 16) announced its 2050 climate strategy (“United States Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization“), that is included in the commitments among countries to set long-term emissions goals under the Paris Agreement. The plan outlines several actions to reduce emissions by at least 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. However, the feasibility of the plan is highly uncertain considering the stance of the upcoming president. Speaking at COP22, Brian Deese, the senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said it is “not a policy prescription. It’s not a set of specific recommendations or a blueprint for any future administration.”

Whichever way US might take to downscale its climate commitments, the future would resemble the past, but with a stronger nuance.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Japan, also with the support of US President Bill Clinton. In 1998 the United States signed the pact but it never ratified it, due to the opposition of the Senate. The following president George W Bush dismissed any interest in participating to the global climate efforts, basically avoiding any US commitment for two presidential mandates (from 2001 until 2009). The Kyoto Protocol entered into force eight years from the  adoption, after the Russia’s ratification in 2004 allowed crossing the double threshold. Under the Kyoto Protocol, only developed countries bound to the deal have obligations to reduce their emissions.

The Paris agreement was ratified by Obama through presidential executive power, bypassing the Congress vote. After its adoption at COP21 in Paris in December 2015, it entered into force in less than one year thanks to a somehow unexpected ratification race, mostly triggered by the US and China’s joint initiative in September. Under the Paris deal, efforts from all countries are under the same framework, composed of “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and designed to set progressive ambitions over time, although granting more flexibility to developing country Parties.

The US potential U-turn may leave the role of global climate leader to an European Union weakened by internal divisions, or to China, whose climate policy both domestically and at the global level has grown strongly in the past few years. According to the recently released Global Carbon Budget report, global GHG emissions stayed flat for the third year in a row in 2016, mainly thanks to falls in China. “Proactively taking action against climate change will improve China’s international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground,” Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and a senior Chinese climate talks negotiator, told Reuters. Zou said that if Trump abandons efforts to implement the Paris agreement, “China’s influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power and leadership.”

For the moment, climate diplomats and officers have chosen the soft stance towards the new president. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said action on climate change has become “unstoppable”, Reuters reports.  Trump, as a “very successful business person”, would understand that market forces were already driving the world economy towards cleaner energies, Ban said. “I am sure he will make a … wise decision”.

Also Barack Obama, during a news conference reported by The Washington Post, pointed out that low-carbon economy is already on the rise and is creating jobs. “We’ve been able to show over the last five, six, eight years that it’s possible to grow the economy very fast and possible to bring down carbon emissions as well…Even states like Texas that politically tend to oppose me, you’ve seen huge increases in wind power and solar power,” Obama said. “You’ve got some of the country’s biggest companies, like Google and Walmart, all pursuing energy efficiency because it’s good for their bottom line”. On the domestic front, a bipartisan group of US defense experts and former military leaders has sent Donald Trump’s transition team a document highlighting that “the effects of climate change present a strategically-significant risk to U.S. national security” and require a “comprehensive policy” in response.

Others highlighted the international pressure US faces to play its role in the collective effort. “We expect that the commitments made by the Americans on climate change will be upheld, after all they are the second largest emitter in the world and they also have to do their fair share to fix the climate”, the EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said, according to BBC.

In a statement released on Friday (Nov. 11), ministers from the “High Ambition Coalition” said the Paris pact represents a “turning point towards a more prosperous and stable world” and governments are “committed to work with the whole international community, including the United States”.



(Image: The bean – Chicago, United States. Photo credit: Giuseppe Milo/Flickr)