Experts say U.S. was given fair and flexible terms in Paris climate agreement

A dried up riverbed in Sri Lanka, where droughts have been increasing in duration and frequency (Credit: Bioversity International / Flickr)

In President Donald Trump’s speech yesterday announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, he said the U.S. government is now reneging on the deal because the terms are “unfair” to Americans.

Climate and policy experts say the terms, in fact, were negotiated by and for the United States and are more than fair – especially considering how much damage to the climate the U.S. is responsible for as well as who is expected to suffer most from climate change. At most risk are poor countries who are less adaptable to climate changes.

Some also say President Trump mischaracterized the entire agreement as a binding contract that the U.S. needed to cancel rather than, in actuality, a flexible consensus document that is simply a matter of good global citizenship.

“Under the agreement, China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years – thirteen,” Trump said. “They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us.”

China and India can also build more coal plants under the agreement, Trump said, but “we’re supposed to get rid of ours. There are many other examples. But the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the United States.”

The Paris Agreement, adopted in Dec. 2015, aims to limit the increase in the global average temperature to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But what some say makes the agreement fairly innovative and flexible is that it employs voluntary commitments set by each country, which are not legally-binding.

“The pledges come in all shapes and sizes to reflect that there’s countries at every stage of their development –some that are still poor and growing very rapidly … and others that are already prosperous,” Jonah Busch, a senior fellow for climates, forests and energy at the Center for Global Development told Humanosphere.

According to Busch, the agreement’s voluntary nature – promoted by the U.S. and others – made sure that every country could take part. The only ones who did not sign on were Syria, which is embroiled in war, and Nicaragua, where officials said they did not think the Paris Agreement was strong enough.

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Previously, under the legally-binding 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the burden of reducing emissions was placed only on developed countries on the premise that they are historically responsible for current levels of carbon emissions. China and India, therefore, had no commitments under previous agreements.

Now, China – the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases – has committed to peak its emissions by 2030 or earlier. It also aims to increase the share of non-fossil energy to around 20 percent and lower the carbon intensity of gross domestic product (GDP) by 60 percent to 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

India has also committed to decrease carbon intensity of GDP by 33 percent to 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and increase its share of non-fossil energy to 40 percent of installed electric power capacity.

Reducing carbon intensity does mean, however, that as GDP continues to rise in China and India with rapid economic development, there may be a net increase in emissions. In contrast, the U.S. has a slow but steady GDP growth rate of 2 percent to 3 percent – typical of developed economies. Therefore, it can commit to net emissions reductions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels, as it did under President Obama.

And in fact, the U.S. should make aggressive commitments to fighting climate change – not only because it’s the second largest emitter of carbon in the world, but also because the U.S. along with Europe is historically most responsible for current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

According to data from the World Resources Institute, the U.S. is responsible for 22 percent of the emissions from 1850 to 2011. Compare that to 2 percent from India and 9 percent from China.

Additionally, “the costs of letting climate change proceed fall hardest on poor people in developing countries,” Busch said. “The projected damages from climate change hit those countries in excess of their share of GDP or population.

The poor in developing countries are most vulnerable as natural disasters increase in severity and frequency, their livelihoods are impacted most by severe weather changes, and they don’t have as many resources to recover, adapt and become more resilient easily.

For the well-being of all their people, countries like China and India must continue to grow economically and provide energy access for every household. That kind of development is often achieved to the detriment of the environment, but commitments like the Paris Agreement are meant to mitigate at least some of that damage.

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To its credit, China is already ahead of its targets, according to analysts, and some think its emissions may have already peaked.

“They were promising low and delivering high,” Busch said. “They’re very quickly building out renewable energy along with gas and hydro and nuclear – everything that isn’t coal.”

India, too, is ahead of its modest targets as it rapidly expands its renewable energy sector.

Unfortunately, even before Trump announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, the commitments from each country were not sufficient to meet the global target. That’s the drawback to a voluntary agreement.

“Paris on its own was not expected to get the world under 2 degrees anyway without future action,” Busch said. “We’re still looking at a world where we have to innovate now and make things easier later.”

One solution, which doesn’t get as much attention as clean energy, is tackling deforestation, which is “cheaper, easier and faster to deal with,” according to Busch. If deforestation were its own country, he said, it would be the third largest source of emissions after China and the United States.

Still, the strength of the agreement is that it doesn’t depend on any one country for success – even big ones like the U.S.

“Trump’s decision certainly doesn’t make [achieving the target]any easier,” Busch said. “But I’m encouraged that other countries could have used this as an excuse to do less, but instead we’re seeing them rallying around China and Europe to do more.”

Meanwhile, states like California, cities, businesses and philanthropists are forging ahead with policies, innovation and funding.

“There’s no substitute for the role that the federal government can play in funding research and development and passing policies that apply to carbon pollution nationwide, in diplomacy and in setting a good example to encourage other countries to cut their emissions, too,” Busch said. “It’s a bad decision, but the energy will shift elsewhere for a while.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.