Trump’s Paris announcement: a profound and deliberate abdication of American leadership

2 June 2017
Comment
A solar engineer at work in Orissa, India. Source: DFID

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump announced he is withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord. Our experts offer three different perspectives on the announcement.

Alex Thier: a bet against America
American flag lies in rubble and water after weather disaster in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo: TSgt Bill Kimble

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords represents a profound and deliberate abdication of American leadership.

The climate agreement signed in 2015 accomplished something remarkable: committing virtually every country on earth, rich and poor, to meaningful, measurable action with a concrete goal to end unsustainable (and undeniable) planetary warming.

The costs of this volte face are therefore very real, both in the US and abroad. Trump’s turning tail is a bet against America.

He has essentially said that America, with its ingenuity and still unparalleled resources, is better at digging up dirty rocks and burning them, than leading a global energy transition that would pay economic dividends for decades to come.

It’s not just about global warming either – millions of people die prematurely every year from respiratory causes due to pollution, and according the Business and Sustainable Development Commission impacts from emissions cost the world some $4.5 trillion a year.

The US is not only one of the world’s largest per capita polluters, it has also been the largest donor helping other countries to make a green growth a reality.

But the US is not only one of the world’s largest per capita polluters, it has also been the largest donor helping other countries to make a green growth a reality. This is not mere generosity. Sub-Saharan Africa has seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world, and yet its people pollute sixty times less than the average American.

If those countries pursue a dirty growth strategy, our collective hopes of preventing catastrophic warming will be dashed. The lack of these investments today will have profound long-term consequences.

Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, a new coal power plant in Africa billowing smoke today could cause a hurricane tomorrow, maybe on US shores.

Shelagh Whitley: who will plug the funding gap?

The US pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to support a shift to resilient and low-carbon development paths.

The previous administration disbursed a third of this amount, leaving a $2 billion bill to pay. As the largest pledge to the GCF, if the US fails to pick up this tab and the $2 billion a year spent bilaterally in developing countries to combat climate change is under threat, poor countries will face the cost of US inaction.

It’s now essential that all countries able to provide climate finance do so. This can ensure the US exit from Paris does not leave a big hole in the GCF or in much needed international public finance support.

The international community must step up and support the poorest countries most vulnerable to climate change so that the US absence from leadership becomes a hiccup in the history of climate action.  

The international community must step up and support the poorest countries most vulnerable to climate change so that the US absence from leadership becomes a hiccup in the history of climate action.

The Obama Administration’s leadership on climate action came at a time when the world sorely needed to reignite a stalled UN process, build trust and work together.

Crucially, the US demonstrated partnership with the world’s major emerging economies, which publicly recognised their need to act and are now speeding ahead. China has revolutionised solar power, dramatically driving down cost and spurring a massive deployment of clean energy in India and beyond.

And while rich and emerging market countries will continue to reap the benefits of falling clean technology costs and are likely to be better placed to adapt, it is often the poorest countries that will be most vulnerable to climate impacts. In many cases, the poorest countries are not investment-ready; they need financial support. 

Rebecca Nadin: an opportunity for China
 Installation of solar photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the Hongqiao Passenger Rail Terminal in Shanghai, China. Photo: Jiri Rezac

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement has much wider implications for the US beyond the agreement. It offers an opportunity for China not only to frame itself as a leader in global climate governance, and in new and renewable energy, but also for Beijing to leverage broader international political capital.

Even before the announcement, the Chinese state media was quick to question America’s reliability as a responsible global leader; stating a withdrawal shows ‘US selfishness and irresponsibility will be made clear to the world, crippling the country's world leadership’. 

In terms of China’s own ambitions to transition to and lead a low-carbon economic revolution, the US withdrawal will have very little impact.

In terms of China’s own ambitions to transition to and lead a low-carbon economic revolution, the US withdrawal will have very little impact.

Premier Li Keqiang, reiterated at yesterday’s EU-China summit that China will move towards the 2030 goal ‘step-by-step steadfastly’.

China’s 13th 5 Year Plan (2016-20), identifies green growth as one of five development concepts underpinning China’s future socio-economic development. Beijing remains committed to rolling out a national emissions trading scheme.

In fact, for several years China has seen tackling climate change as fundamental to development both in terms of energy security and in responding to climate impacts.

Energy efficiency remains one of China’s top energy and climate policy agendas. As does air pollution, which has become one of the strong incentives for reforming China’s energy sector. China’s National Energy Administration, forecasts that by 2020 the renewable energy sector will provide 13 million jobs. 

China moves forward with its global overseas investment plan (One Belt, One Road) and continues to show commitment and leadership on global issues.

Rather than making ‘America Great Again’, Trump may find his withdrawal of the US from global agreements sharpens Xi Jingpin’s aspiration for the ‘Chinese Dream (Zhongguo Meng)’ to become a global and domestic reality.