Can the Paris Agreement survive?

There is an element of déjà vu to the events in the White House Rose Garden last week. Just days into my new job as climate change adviser in Shell, then President George W. Bush announced that the USA was withdrawing completely from the Kyoto Protocol and would follow an alternative path forward in terms of climate action. At the time, he proposed a significant step-up in technology development through the National Climate Change Technology Initiative and a leadership role by the United States to work within the United Nations framework and elsewhere to develop with its friends and allies and nations throughout the world an effective and science-based response to the issue of global warming.

The June 2001 Bush announcement was widely expected and indeed, it helped spell the end for the Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCCC process fractured as a result, with some Parties continuing to pursue the Kyoto Protocol and all Parties brought back to the table to negotiate a new deal that worked for the United States. This gave birth to the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action, which together with the Kyoto Protocol arrangements could have potentially combined into a satisfactory global deal. Unfortunately, they didn’t, with the meltdown in Copenhagen being the outcome. But the pieces were reassembled, in large part led by the United States under President Obama, with the result being the Paris Agreement in December 2015. That process took over 14 years to complete.

Sixteen years on from the Bush announcement and again from the White House lawn, President Trump has now declared that the United Stated will exit the Paris Agreement, once again with the caveat that the Administration would be open to a renegotiation or even an entirely new agreement. The reasons given are largely the same as those of President Bush; unfairness, competitiveness concerns, negative economic impact, layoffs of workers and price increases for consumers. But the circumstances are very different this time around.

Looking 14 years ahead from today we will be in the 2030s. As my own analysis showed, that represents a period when we may start to see years in which the global average temperature rise could equal or exceed 1.5°C above the level in the mid-1800s. There isn’t any grace period remaining to reorganise, negotiate and agree yet another climate deal. Nor should that happen; the Paris Agreement is structured to reflect what countries are prepared to offer, with few requirements other than that successive mitigation offers should improve over time and ratchet towards the end goal of net-zero emissions in the second half of the century. The Agreement isn’t a good or bad deal for anyone; it simply reflects the progression required over time as nations either continue or begin to proactively manage emissions and eventually contain them.

The Paris Agreement is made up of national contributions (NDC), determined by nations per their domestic circumstances. This is the case for all countries, from the United States of America as the world’s largest economy through to Zimbabwe as one of the poorest. Although the Agreement asks for developed countries to continue with economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets, there is an expectation that all countries move in this direction and the Agreement encourages such movement. Several developing countries have structured their national contributions to reflect this and in the time since the negotiations concluded, more have implemented measures to that effect. For example, China is implementing a nationwide emissions trading system and emissions within their economy are now expected to peak well before 2030, ahead of their stated national contribution.

With all countries supposedly on a pathway towards absolute targets and eventually net-zero emissions, there is nothing left to negotiate other than the timeline along which this proceeds. Once again, the Agreement sets out the process for this, rather than Parties having to resort to yet another negotiating process towards an alternative agreement. There is a transparency framework, a stocktake process and a mechanism to facilitate implementation of and promote compliance with the provisions of the Agreement. Although the proposed mechanism is facilitative in nature and should function in a manner that is transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive, it nevertheless offers the opportunity for a country such as the USA to negotiate more rapid convergence of effort.

Both Chancellor Merkel and President Macron, along with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa made it clear the morning after President Trump’s announcement that there would be no renegotiation of the Paris Agreement. While anything is possible in theory, a renegotiation would put an end to the Agreement and probably not deliver a replacement for a decade or more. They were right to reject the proposal; in any case, it simply isn’t necessary under the structure that exists.

Given all the above, the current Administration may still be concerned about the effort required by the United States to deliver its stated goal of a reduction of 26-28% in emissions by 2025 against a 2005 baseline, particularly when compared to some countries. Although the current surge in US natural gas production and its replacement of coal for power generation, the advance of renewable energy and the roll-out of electric vehicles are all contributing to a fall in US emissions, the target remains ambitious. While the prospect of success is visible within the energy transition that is underway, the United States could simply resubmit its national contribution. Various parts of the Paris Agreement and the accompanying Decision Text open the door to such a step, and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the Agreement for the United States, said as much on the BBC shortly after the Trump announcement. Although successive national contributions are required to demonstrate increased ambition under the Agreement, this is the first such submission and therefore can be revised. Take, for example, paragraph 22 of the accompanying Decision Text to the Paris Agreement. It says;

  1. Invites Parties to communicate their first nationally determined contribution no later than when the Party submits its respective instrument of ratification, accession, or approval of the Paris Agreement. If a Party has communicated an intended nationally determined contribution prior to joining the Agreement, that Party shall be considered to have satisfied this provision unless that Party decides otherwise;

It would seem to be the case that the USA has ‘decided otherwise’. By resubmitting its national contribution, some semblance of renegotiation would be achieved, at least in part. A new contribution from the United States would still require an absolute target as this is required of developed countries under Article 4.4, but the number could have a much wider margin, covering the expectation of economic growth that the President alluded to in his speech on June 1st. Of course, this isn’t an ideal outcome from an emissions perspective, but it would keep the United States in the frame for some time to come and allow them to pursue further equivalency of effort through the implementation mechanism.

Should the USA end up on a path of true departure, this will still take until November 2020 to execute. A Party cannot serve notice of termination until three years after the Agreement enters into force and then there is a period of one year before their participation ends. While such a period does not extend beyond the term of the current Administration, it nevertheless represents a long time in politics.

In the meantime, some 190+ other countries will continue to implement their national contributions through a variety of approaches. The European Union, for example, is pursuing a reduction of 40% by 2030 against a 1990 baseline, utilising a cap-and-trade system for the large emission sources such as power stations. Even within the United States, the current energy transition will continue, with much the same result in terms of emissions in 2020 and possibly even 2025 as would have been the case with the national contribution in place. States and cities will likely see to this. Deactivation of the contribution is unlikely to spur new construction of coal fired power stations given the intense competitive pressure from natural gas and renewables. Even discounting current competition, there remains the prospect of future carbon constraints imposed at some point within the 50+ year lifetime of a new coal fired power station.

But the energy transition is just one element of the Paris Agreement; emissions management is at its core. This will require more than just an energy transition to implement, probably requiring large scale deployment of negative emissions technologies, including geological storage of carbon dioxide. This latter step may be the one that suffers following the US announcement.

The Paris Agreement can and likely will survive the events of last week. But if other nations don’t step up and look beyond their own energy transitions, focussing squarely on the need for a net-zero emissions outcome within the next 50-80 years, then the goal of the Agreement will be at risk.