The Nature and Impact of the Trump Administration’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

By Wang Ruibin

The US President Donald Trump recently announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the latest US policy action on climate change and energy security following the Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth Trump had signed in March. It shows that the Trump administration has completely abandoned the climate and energy policies adopted by the Obama administration. The nature and impact of such a move deserve close attention. 

1. The Nature of the Trump Administration’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

On June 1, Trump finally decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement after nearly half a year of calculations, which once again testifies to his governing principle of “America first” and reinforces his policy focus on domestic economic affairs. In essence, Trump’s determination to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is utterly political posturing. It contains three interconnected meanings. First, he did so to deliver on his campaign pledge and commitment to interest groups such as coal, oil, natural gas and other conventional fossil fuel sectors. According to the statistics of the US Federal Election Committee, the five presidential candidates who had received the most contributions from coal interest groups were all Republicans. And Trump got far more donations than the others. He also wanted to get across to the voters as a politician who means what he says. Second, he did so to create and accumulate political achievements. Since taking office, President Trump has taken drastic steps to repeal Obamacare, implement tax cuts and push through a massive infrastructure plan. Unfortunately, there are either hurdles or little possibility to make breakthroughs on these attempts. At the same time, Trump’s team or family members are bogged down in the “Russia gate” scandal. The latest CBS opinion poll shows that only 36% of the respondents approved of Trump’s performance as president. Third, he did so to secure public support for the Republicans to maintain their advantage in the 2018 mid-term election and continue their control in both chambers of the Congress. Trump intends to link climate actions with the contraction of the manufacturing sector and job losses, so as to stabilize the voter base for the Republican. In June, two Republicans won the special elections in June in Georgia and South Carolina, two states that are seen as the barometer and test ground of next year’s mid-term election, thus solidifying the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. 

As things stand now, the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will not produce any negative impact, except for the damage to the US credibility worldwide. 

First, the US does not assume mandatory responsibilities for quantified emission reduction in the Paris Agreement. From a legal perspective, the Paris Agreement is under the UNFCCC and has nominal binding force. However, it provides state parties with considerable space for policy maneuvering in practice. No substantial breakthroughs have been made on major topics where conflicting interests abound, such as emission reduction target, funding assistance and technology transfer. These issues have only been put on hold. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) form the basis of the Paris Agreement, but have no binding force, as they are voluntary action plans submitted by state parties. Therefore, neither the Paris Agreement nor the INDCs submitted by the Obama administration bind the US to any compliance commitments on mandatory quantified emission target and funding assistance to LDCs. 

Second, the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement does not mean the US pulls itself from the UNFCCC and the process of international climate change negotiations. As stated above, the Paris Agreement takes the form of an international multilateral treaty and is a legal extension of the UNFCCC. As customary in international law, the US is still a state party to the UNFCCC and has the right to participate in the climate negotiation process under the UN. Even Trump, when announcing the withdrawal, said that he does not rule out the possibility of renegotiating a so called “fair” climate agreement with relevant parties. In fact, even if the US starts the legal process of withdrawal right away, it won’t be completed until November 2019. By then, Trump will soon finish his first term in office. Given its strength in science and technology, its GHG emission volume and its role in various international mechanisms, the US still has important influence on the process of international climate cooperation and related rules-making. 

Lastly, the domestic climate policies and actions of the US are characterized by a “bottom-up” approach. This is determined by the US political system and ecology. The absence of federal climate policies won’t fundamentally prevent US climate actions. The states vary widely in comprehensive economic strength, industrial and energy consumption structure and resource endowment, and have different interests. They have autonomy in managing their economic affairs as well. The federal government will meet enormous resistance in pushing climate and energy policies through the congress in a “top down” manner. As such, the Obama administration bypassed the legislature and ratified the Paris Agreement through an executive order. It has enabled Trump to easily scrap it in the same way. At the same time, states, cities, companies and NGOs in the US have been autonomous and active in pursuing climate actions and utilizing environment-friendly technologies through a “bottom-up” approach. Almost all states and major cities and companies in the US have made their own emission reduction plans. For example, 13 states including California, Washington and Minnesota have established the United States Climate Alliance to develop a low-carbon economy and uphold the Paris Agreement. 9 states in the Northeast, 6 in the Midwest and 7 in the West have formed a regional alliance for emission reduction and a carbon trading market. 75 major cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have adopted the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda. 

2. The Impact of Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement Action on International Climate Cooperation

The withdrawal of the Trump administration from the Paris Agreement has brought about some impact on the international climate cooperation process with a recently identified direction. Yet, it will not set the process back or reverse it. The Paris Agreement is another major outcome of the international climate change cooperation process after the Kyoto Protocol. It draws the timeline and roadmap for the post-2020 global climate change action. It is based on the INDCs that countries have submitted in light of their national conditions. Such a “bottom-up” approach is different from the “top-down” approach of the Kyoto Protocol, where Annex I countries are assigned emission reduction targets. The US withdrawal won’t undermine the basis of the Paris Agreement at the moment. So far, it has been ratified by 149 state parties of the UNFCCC and received the widest possible support. 

However, as said earlier, the United States has played a critical role in the UN climate change negotiation process. The negative impact of the adjustment of climate and energy policies by the Trump administration has yet to be assessed. 

The withdrawal has undermined the political confidence of the international community about tackling climate change. The Copenhagen Conference held at the end of 2009 frustrated the world about the prospects of global cooperation against climate change. The toothless Copenhagen Agreement was tantamount to announcing the failure of the “Kyoto Model” of global emission reduction. In the subsequent years, thanks to the relentless efforts of China, the US, the EU, India and other major economies, the international community finally reached consensus at the Durban Climate Conference in 2011 and worked closely to “develop a protocol, another legal instrument or a legal outcome under the Convention applicable to all Parties” and establish a post-2020 international emission reduction mechanism. Towards the end of 2015, the Paris Agreement was reached. A new emission reduction model was created with a legally binding international agreement as the core and the INDCs as the basis. Before the Paris Conference, 187 countries had submitted their INDCs, accounting for 97% of the global emissions and representing unprecedented participation of state parties in the climate action. The climate and energy policies of the Trump administration testify to another renunciation of climate change responsibilities by the US after the Bush Jr. administration. It deals another blow to the confidence of governments, international organizations, businesses and organizations about tackling the global challenge. 

It has also added to the difficulty of implementing the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement entered into the implementation phase immediately after it came into force at the end of 2016. Before that, major state parties had made considerable compromises when negotiating the text of the Paris Agreement in order to maximize the consensus. The negative attitude of the Trump administration makes it more difficult to negotiate on special topics in the future and is more likely to prevent negotiations from achieving progress and results. The Trump administration has cancelled its support to the Green Climate Fund, stopped the international climate partnerships, evaded the responsibility of developed industrialized countries to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation and ignored the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. This will not help developing countries respect and implement the principle of respective capabilities and fulfill their emission reduction targets set in INDCs. Nor will it be conducive to achieving the long-term target in the Paris Agreement: “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels.”

3. Reflections on the Existing Model and Pathway of International Climate Cooperation

Trump’s withdrawal once again reveals the inherent deficiency in the agreement and the existing international climate change model, which calls for reflections. Otherwise, it will hinder the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement and the future of the international climate cooperation. 

First, the inherent deficiency of the Paris Agreement should be improved and modified. The agreement was signed by representatives of state parties with full authorizations. It is open for signing by countries. State parties complete their own ratification processes and deposit the ratification instruments at the United Nations. Certain conditions are set for its entry into force. And state parties have the right to exit the agreement. In terms of procedures and content, the Paris Agreement meets the “international law-based” definition of international multilateralism. According to Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaty, all valid treaties that are binding on all states concerned shall be implemented by those states in good will. From the perspective of legal force, the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol are both legal documents subordinate to the UNFCCC. In terms of content, there is no significant connectivity and continuity between the two. They represent totally different ideas and pathways on mitigation and adaptation. For the purpose of maximizing international consensus and preventing the international climate cooperation process from collapsing, the Paris Agreement shys away from specific differences such as supervision and compliance and places more emphasis on the moral and collective responsibilities of state parties. As there are uncertainties at the legal level, the agreement is unlikely to carry strong binging force. As the basis of the agreement, the INDCs have an even weaker legal status. 

Second, the international climate cooperation model whereby multilateral negotiations are driven by bilateral cooperation needs to be improved. The fragility and failure of the model are revealed by the debates and crisis sparked by Trump’s easy withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as a result of government change. Trump’s new climate and energy policies almost completely reversed policies of the Obama administration, which shakes the foundation of important bilateral climate cooperation mechanism between China and the US as well as between Europe and the US. The trust and effective cooperation between China and the US on climate change was the key to the Paris Agreement. After the Copenhagen Conference, China and the US made compromises through dialogues and consultation mechanisms, which have enabled continuous breakthroughs in international climate negotiations. The two countries have acted as “double engines” for narrowing differences, fostering basic consensus among different parties, and safeguarding the international climate cooperation process under the UN framework. China and the US have issued three joint statements on climate change. Based on the consensus reached at the top level, governments, businesses and non-governmental sectors of the two countries have established various dialogues and platforms on climate and energy policies, science and technology and trade. The US withdrawal poses challenges for the model of multilateral international negotiations driven by China-US cooperation and puts the government authorities and institutions of the two countries under pressure for adjustment and adaptation.  

Lastly, the international community needs to have innovative approaches to discussing global issues such as climate change. To tackle climate change is a typical global challenge that calls for the participation of all countries and regions and the collaboration of governments, businesses and institutions at multiple levels so as to find solutions. However, since the UNFCCC was concluded in 1992, global climate negotiations have been a difficult process with limited progress. The Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement are two landmark achievements and, at the same time, the focal point of differences. And the results have been less than satisfactory. Parties have sought to strike a balance between the shared interests of human beings and national interests and make breakthroughs. It has been difficult to implement the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. To implement the Paris Agreement and continue climate cooperation calls for three interconnected factors: the right timing, the right conditions and willingness. On timing. Since the 2007global financial crisis, the de-globalization sentiment has been rampant, causing impacts on the existing global political and economic order and impeding the implementation of the Paris Agreement. That said, the reform of the global governance system is high on the agenda, providing the right timing for negotiators to discuss climate change in light of the reform of the global governance system. On conditions. Though the Paris Agreement and the INDCs are less than desirable, they can still be taken as a new starting point. Moreover, the fast development of renewable energy technologies and market provides more policy and action options for negotiators. As for willingness, joining hands to tackle climate change is the prevailing commitment of the international community. Although there will be a lack of climate policies at the federal level in the US for a long time to come, there is great enthusiasm on the part of its local governments, businesses and institutions. 

4. Conclusion

To put it in perspective, the withdrawal of the Trump administration from the Paris Agreement creates opportunities for China, the EU and India to push forward international climate cooperation. As said earlier, major negotiators must adopt an approach from the perspective of building a new global governance system, and design and steadily promote the negotiation process to take the Paris Agreement into the stage of negotiation. 

The Paris model for international cooperation on emission reduction needs to be maintained and improved. The Paris Agreement and the INDCs submitted by countries have established a basic model for international climate cooperation for a fairly long time to come. The Paris Agreement has entered the stage of implementation and compliance. It is, in essence, a set of principled provisions on the moral and collective responsibilities of state parties. The mechanism of compliance is weak. And there are no mandatory targets for emission reduction. According to statistics, the emissions of major economies such as China, the US and the EU have slowed down and even dropped. In fact, their pressure for emission reduction is somewhat alleviated. China made important contribution for the Paris model. As it continues to play a leading role in the absence of the US, China’s focus is not reinventing the wheel, but implementing the agreement based on its INDC and achieving its set target on schedule. This will showcase China’s image as a big responsible nation and its capability to lead the reform of the global governance system. 

It is important to take China-US dialogue and cooperation on energy and climate to a new stage. The position and attitude of the US towards subsequent climate negotiations have important influence on the success of the Paris model and the building of a new mechanism. To tackle climate change is an important area for China to participate in global governance. Its constructive efforts for reaching the Paris Agreement over the past years have been acclaimed internationally. To establish a new communication and dialogue mechanism on climate change and energy cooperation with the Trump administration will be important for increasing understanding and consensus and ensuring the Paris Agreement and other achievements will not be jeopardized. Moreover, thanks to Trump’s new climate and energy policies, there have emerged abundant market opportunities and cooperation space in conventional fossil fuel, renewable energy and infrastructure. Take the oil industry for example. The US has fast increased its oil output with a robust need for exports. China’s imports of US oil can help diversify its oil import channel, improve trade balance and solidify the basis for common interests between China and the US. China has been a world leader in renewable energy investment, production and utilization. Under Trump’s new energy policy, the market opportunities for wind, solar and biomass energy will increase, not decrease. This will lead to win-win outcomes for China and the US. 

Wang Ruibin is Associate Research Fellow, Department for World Economy and Development, China Institute of International Studies.