Could Trump 'Cancel' Paris Climate Deal?

January 31, 2017

Special TipSheet: Could Trump 'Cancel' Paris Climate Deal?


As part of our Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment 2017 special report, TipSheet has prepared a series of look-aheads for key issues to watch in the coming year.

TipSheet graphicThe coming year will certainly witness news on newly installed President Donald Trump’s confrontation with the historic Paris Agreement on climate. During the campaign, he promised to “cancel” it. Could he? Would he? Will it make a bit of difference?

First, could he “cancel” it? No, he is powerless to do so. He may, however, try to withdraw U.S. ratification.

Second, could he reject it or wreck it? He will surely make a show of trying.

Third, would it matter? Yes, but hardly as much as some people fear.

Some background: The Paris agreement was reached in Paris on Dec. 12, 2015, by some 194 nations negotiating under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

Under the agreement, each nation makes a specific voluntary pledge on reducing greenhouse emissions, with the nations’ contributions varying.

It went into effect on Nov. 4, 2016, when it was ratified by a sufficient number of nations. To date, at least 127 nations have ratified it. As a matter of international law, it will continue to be in effect even if one nation, such as the United States, withdraws ratification.

Protesters at the Eiffel Tower during the U.N. climate summit in Paris, December, 2015
Protesters at the Eiffel Tower during the U.N. climate summit in Paris, December, 2015. Photo: Julien B., Flickr Creative Commons

Candidate Trump made the “cancel” pledge repeatedly in various forms during the 2016 campaign. One of the earliest and most dramatic was during his May 26 showpiece energy speech in Bismarck, N.D.

During his first week in office, Trump did not signal purely from a news perspective that the Paris Agreement was high on his immediate action list. And his bravado about “canceling” it has waned some since he made the 2016 vow.

But will it happen in the first 100 days? The administration has not yet signalled that either. With neither a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator nor a Secretary of State confirmed by the Senate as of this writing, it may be too early to be sure.

Of course, Trump could at any time call the TV cameras into the oval office and make a show of signing some document with ambiguous effect. But in practical fact, U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement is likelier to end (if it does) not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Here’s why. Trump may have softened on the climate treaty. Or not. Nobody actually knows, because Trump does not send clear signals. When he spoke to The New York Times in November after the election, he said he had an “open mind” on the climate treaty.

The media made a big deal of it at first, but then Trump appointed a rock-ribbed climate denier, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, to head the EPA. The media went back to reading tea leaves. In a Senate confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, suggested that the United States should stay in the Paris Agreement. Tillerson said the country would have more influence if it could “maintain its seat at the table.”

Even a U.S. withdrawal might not be as abrupt and definitive as Trump once implied. The actual terms of the Paris Agreement (Article 28) provide that a country that has ratified it can not withdraw until three years after ratification — and the withdrawal even then would not take effect for another year. That would put it after the end of Trump’s term as president.

The full legal situation is even more complex, as an analysis by the Congressional Research Service explains. Still, the legal thicket may give Trump other gambits. Some lawyers think he could exit the Paris agreement sooner.

Still, Trump does not need any Congressional consent if he does want to drop out. Keep in mind that the agreement was carefully engineered by the Obama administration not to need ratification by the Senate.

U.S. negotiator Todd Stern knew he could never get the two-thirds supermajority in the Senate needed to ratify a formal treaty. Instead, it was crafted in such a way that it could be seen as an “executive agreement” requiring only a signature by the president. That, however, was a two-edged sword, since it could by un-ratified also by the stroke of a president’s pen.

Factoring in ambiguities, market pressures

Another thing to realize about the Paris Agreement is that the U.S. commitment under it is essentially to reduce its greenhouse emissions by a certain amount, without specifying how.

Our “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution,” as it is called, is this: “The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level in 2025.”

Doing it this way has important implications. Conveniently for Trump, he could simply ignore the Paris Agreement. At present, there is no real enforcement mechanism. He would be long out of office by the time 2025 rolls around.

The only drawback, from his perspective, might be that he would lose the opportunity for political drama that would boost his support among those who oppose the agreement.

A U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would, for sure, make an important difference, if only in terms of moral leadership. This became clear at the annual UN climate meeting in Morocco in November, following the 2016 U.S. election. After Trump’s victory, apprehension spread through the meeting.

But by the time the Morocco meeting ended, nations in the Paris Agreement pact were expressing determination to carry it out and tighten it — and optimism that it would succeed.

An even more interesting question is whether the United States would hit or miss its target of 28 percent by 2025 by going ahead and doing nothing. Many think that might depend on whether the nation carries out Obama’s hallmark climate regulatory package, the Clean Power Plan, or CPP.

The plan, among other things, sets carbon limits for new power plants that are so strict that burning coal becomes impossible. The Supreme Court put enforcement of the CPP on hold in February 2016 pending court decisions on a complex package of cases challenging it. But many of the states challenging the CPP in court are actually on track to comply with it anyway.

The reason for this is fairly clear. The U.S. economy is already well along on a market-driven transformation away from coal, toward cleaner natural gas and ultimately to clean renewables like solar and wind.

That transformation has begun with little government intervention, and it seems government intervention may be powerless to stop it. If it continues, the United States may be on its way to meeting its declared Paris Agreement targets, even if it withdraws.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 5. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.


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