On 1 June 2017, in the White House Rose Garden, US President Donald Trump decided to follow through on one of his campaign promises by announcing his decision to withdraw the US of the Paris Climate agreement.
The central aim of the agreement is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
One of the ways to reach this objective is to reduce and eventually bring down carbon emissions to net zero by the second half of the century. Additionally, the agreement aims to pool financial resources to strengthen the ability of countries, especially the poorer and the most exposed, to adapt and deal with the impacts of climate change.
The justifications put forward in the statement by US President Donald Trump were of the potential negative impacts on businesses, investments and jobs in the US as well as the fact that “even if the Paris agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree – think of that; this much – Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny, tiny amount.”
Therefore, with such decision, the Trump administration sends a bad message, one which could potentially undermine the international efforts to tackle global warming. Indeed, pulling out while being the world’s second largest CO2 emitter is problematic and could get other countries to feel less inclined to curb their own greenhouse gases.
Beyond the shock that such a decision created, doubts may arise as to how strong the Paris agreement actually is in addressing climate change and its consequences.
Where does it fall short?
In his work, Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, argued that the effectiveness of an international treaty is a function of three factors. First the ambition of its provisions; second, the level of participation by states; and third, the degree to which states comply. Using these criteria on the Paris agreement, one can emit the following observations.
Regarding the first factor, the Paris agreement does not appear as being ambitious enough. Indeed, and this is where the US President Donald Trump is not entirely wrong, the current pledges from the countries, even fully implemented, if they do not go way beyond, will not prevent global temperatures from rising more than the objective of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
For the second factor, the level of participation by states is undeniably high.197 states have signed the agreement, of which 148 have ratified it so far. The US is, with Syria and Nicaragua, the only non-signatory to the agreement-Nicaragua refused because it deemed the agreement not ambitious enough and Syria is embroiled in a protracted conflict.
Besides the broad support, what was also remarkable was the speed at which countries have made the Paris’s Agreement’s entry into force possible- a bit more than six months. And, as Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change put it: “this is unprecedented in recent experience of international agreements”.
The last factor is the degree to which states comply. The agreement is described as a hybrid of legally binding and non-binding provisions. The issue is that countries have set their own targets to reduce their gas emissions, and those voluntary goals are not legally binding.
A positive incentive
Some would argue that non-legally binding provisions are necessary as they might have been what encouraged the participation of countries and nudge them in the right direction without locking them into potentially costly commitments. For instance, Daniel Bodansky, professor at the Arizona State University and a leading authority on global climate change, argued that the legally binding nature of the Kyoto agreement deterred US’ participation.
Similarly, he also argued that far fewer countries would have participated in the Copenhagen Accord, by putting forward emissions pledges, if the Accord had been a legally binding agreement that made countries’ pledges legally binding.
While there is some truth to this argument, the issue is that, in 2013, it was reported that most countries were not on track to meet pledges they had made under the Copenhagen Agreement and only a few of them were on track to meet their, often inadequate, pledges.
This gives an indication that making countries’ pledges non-legally binding might have increased participation in the Paris Agreement but there are reasonable doubts over whether it is efficient in increasing compliance. Given the current situation which requires more urgent and decisive actions, it does not appear that we really have much time to rely on non-legally binding feeble political commitments.
As a conclusion, the Paris Agreement has arguably sent a positive signal and leads us in the right direction by indicating the importance that nations attach to combating climate change.
However, the commitments so far are not enough in the face of the urgency of the situation. It is therefore crucial for countries to truly double down on the efforts to go beyond what they committed and to promote all the different positive initiatives at all levels. Let’s hope that the Trump Administration’s decision will have that effect.