Was the USA withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement a huge deal?

Updated: Apr 10

The American elections are over. The USA will come back into the Paris agreement signed on April 22nd, 2016, at least there’s hope.

Why was it a big deal when Trump announced that the United States would pull out of it?

Did the agreement push the fight against climate change forward all over the world?

1- What is the Paris agreement?

The election of Joe Biden has put the Paris agreement at the forefront recently.

Let’s remember what it is.

For once in history, 96% of the countries on the planet have ratified an agreement.

They agreed to combat climate change all together. [1]

That was a milestone! Even China, India, and North Korea signed it!

Head of states who signed the Paris Agreement in 2016

Everybody knows today that if we fail to decrease carbon emissions, the consequences on the climate will be a massive problem.

More wildfires, more intense heat waves, crops diversity will decrease, sea levels will rise, biodiversity will be reduced.

The most disastrous effect in our opinion is that it will disrupt the food supply and shortages in food supply lead to wars.

At the time, we were on track for a 3–4 °C increase in temperature.

The key number was to limit that raise to 2 °C and the deadline for which was 2040.

This threshold was supposed to limit climate related risks and keep the anthropogenic changes from becoming irreversible.

The Paris agreement was asking each country to set up 5-year goals, meet them, and reconvene every 2 to 5 years to set up more ambitious goals.

The agreement is voluntary, not legally binding and bears no ill-effect on countries who fail to achieve their commitments.
It just includes a process that is envisaged to shame them into compliance.

It was not perfect and not ambitious enough, but the key success was to have set an agreement with the entire world.

2- If the agreement was voluntary, what was the harm in leaving it?

In June 2017, Trump announced that the USA will pull out of the Paris agreement.

Why was it a huge deal?

The US had committed to reducing emissions by 26–28% by 2025.

Knowing that the United Sates is the 2nd country in the world (after China) in terms of carbon dioxide emissions with 15% of the world emission in 2018 and the 4th country per capita (vs 13th for China, 9th for Germany),[2] that was a big deal.

CO2 emissions per country

Nevertheless, as said above, the agreement is voluntary and no legal measures will be taken if you do not reach your goals, so what was the harm in leaving?

Worldwide, the harm was the message sent.

  • Reducing the price of oil

  • Decreasing regulation

  • Not participating in the UN Green Fund to collectively find solutions.

All these measures might have contributed to countries being less committed to achieve their sustainability goals.

For the research into climate change, this is a disaster.

As a matter of fact, in 2015, the U.S.A. was publishing a quarter of all the scientific papers written on climate change. 58% of the most cited climate change papers were American.[3]

This made the USA, the leader in the world of fundamental research and climate change.

The Trump administration’s steep cut in climate research funding would compromise the quality of future research but also undermine their authority in future climate change negotiations.

It had a short-term advantage for the U.S.A.

By withdrawing, the USA has the short term advantage that it can pollute more, at low cost, but still sell its products abroad while countries committed to decrease their CO2 emissions will have at the beginning a disadvantage, which will make it more difficult for them to achieve the 2 °C target.

Within the United States, it is foreseen that this decision in the long term will harm American workers.

As a matter of fact, if, while the world is shifting to renewable energy, the USA is protecting jobs in the fossil industry, this lack of investment in clean energy industry will cost jobs in the long term.

A last consequence is the one on investment and business within the country.[4]

If the reputation of the United States is tainted, the viability of businesses is questioned, foreign investments will decrease.

3- Was the Paris agreement a real quick start for worldwide action against climate change?

3.1 It has been a wake-up a call

It has been a been a wake-up call all over the world.

The threshold is in fact +1.5 °C and not +2 °C.[5]

So large scale changes from government, companies and individuals are needed.

3.2 What we face

The average global temperatures has increased by 1.1 °C since the pre-industrial period and by 0.2 °C compared to 2011–2015.

At this rate, the carbon emission budget allowing us to have 50% chance to keep temperature rise below 1.5 °C will be used in 2040.

Between 2015–2019, the sea level has continued to rise by 5 millimetres per year, compared to 4 millimetres in the ten-year period from 2007–2016.

Between 2015 and 2019, the weather has caused huge damages on every continent, with heat waves, forest fires, crop failures, and human loss.[5]

3.3 Companies stepped up

Despite the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement, companies in the United states and all over the world stepped up:

  • Facebook power its data centres with renewable energy.[6]

  • Exxon Mobil and Chevron have openly claimed that they will go on working on green energy

  • Apple has committed to be 100 percent carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030.[7]

  • The Bank of America announced having met its carbon neutrality goals this year, one year ahead of schedule.[8]

  • Philip Morris International has set carbon neutrality target for 2030.[9]

… and so on.

The momentum is there and has been brought forward.

3.4 The European Union took the lead

With the European Green Deal, the European Union targets to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050.

Click on our article below to know more.

3.5 China is set to become the world’s leader in renewable energy.

It is today the world largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbine and electric cars.

In 2016, they owned 150,000 patents in renewable energy (vs 100,000 for the USA, 75,000 for Japan), 29% of them were global patents.

These numbers are an image of the investment countries put into renewable.[10]

3.6 The American Green New deal

This agreement is a non-binding resolution but set aggressive goals such as:

  • Net zero carbon emission

  • 100% power demand through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources

  • Creating millions of high-wage jobs in the united states

It contains no details on how these goals will be achieved.

But it has the advantages of:

  • Keeping the discussion alive

  • Making officials realise that small incremental changes won’t be enough

  • Open the conversations for: Green diesel jet fuels, Improved battery storage, Building better power grids, Improve industrial processes, Smart cities, Lab grown meat, etc.

The conversation has not gone well so far but the discussion is still happening.

So, was the USA withdrawal from the Paris agreement a big deal?

It was a good thing because it has allowed everybody else to step up their game!

Leaders are supposed to show you the way, but if their unable to, revolutions happen.

This is what has been happening these last years in the climate action spectrum.

Investment in clean-tech has been constantly on the rise everywhere, and the voice of climate-sceptic is becoming quieter and quieter (even if the most popular of all, was the president of the USA).

It has been a bad thing for science and research…

Less funding means fewer solutions, less accuracy in data, less risk mitigation.

This is why will be very glad to see the U.S.A. re-join the fight.

[1] https://www.climatechangenews.com/2020/08/13/countries-yet-ratify-paris-agreement/ (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [2] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [3] https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-the-most-cited-climate-change-papers (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [4] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/consequences-leaving-paris-agreement (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [5] https://library.wmo.int/doc_num.php?explnum_id=9936%23:~:text=The%20average%20global%20temperature%20for,%E2%80%932015%20(Figure%202) (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [6] https://sustainability.fb.com/innovation-for-our-world/sustainable-data-centers/ (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [7] https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2020/07/apple-commits-to-be-100-percent-carbon-neutral-for-its-supply-chain-and-products-by-2030/ (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [8] https://www.environmentalleader.com/2020/01/bank-of-america-announces-carbon-neutrality-one-year-ahead-of-schedule/ (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [9] https://www.pmi.com/media-center/press-releases/press-release-details/?newsId=21571 (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020) [10] http://geopoliticsofrenewables.org/assets/geopolitics/Reports/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Global_commission_renewable_energy_2019.pdf (last accessed on Nov. 15th, 2020)