COP23 (see here and here for details of the previous COP meetings are) is currently taking place in Bonn, Germany. The focus of this conference is to put the landmark Paris agreement into practice, without the US.  This is because, on 1st of June 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the climate Paris Agreement, causing widespread condemnation around the globe and many interrogations on the future of the agreement.

At the time, the US joined Nicaragua and Syria as the only countries not being part of the agreement, albeit for very different reasons (an agreement way too weak to address climate change according to Nicaragua; and the ongoing civil war in Syria, which did not participate in the conference). However, since then, both Nicaragua and Syria have signed up for the agreement – leaving the US as the single non-signatory.

This article reviews the steps leading to the adoption of the Paris agreement, its strengths and weaknesses, and discusses some of the implications of the US withdrawal.


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Climate change entered the political agenda in the 1980s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first synthesis report in 1990, highlighting the real risk that human activities could affect the Earth’s environment to a potentially very serious extent. When the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development took place in Rio two years later, climate change had become an known issue. The Conference led (among other positive achievements) to the adoption of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as the basis of a global response to climate change.

Kyoto Protocol

The UNFCCC sets non-binding limits on greenhouse gases emission. It is a “framework” convention, which means that is does not represent the final word and can be expanded over time. This is what happened in 1997 with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, which included binding targets for how much industrialised countries must reduce their emissions by 2012. Industrialized and developing countries have different obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, which constitutes a crucial element that has been widely questioned and debated.

The US signed the Kyoto Protocol but never ratified it (meaning they do not have any emission reduction obligations under the Kyoto Protocol). China (which has now overtaken the US as the world’s largest producer of CO2) was considered as a developing country under the Protocol, and consequently did not have any legal obligation either.

The “first commitment period” of the Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012. So, countries had to decide what to do next, and engaged in difficult negotiations. One of the main points of discussion was the obligation of developing countries to reduce their emissions, and especially China, India and Brazil, which are important emitters in absolute terms. These countries argued in return that a large part of their population still lives in poverty and that they do not emit much if we consider emissions per capita (that is to say at the population level and not at the whole country level).

Post-Kyoto “progress”

The issue of the post-2012 regime dominated the 2007 Bali Conference (COP13), which decided on a road map towards adopting a binding agreement in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15). In December 2009, 40,000 people gathered in the Danish capital for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Over 110 Heads of State or Government attended the Summit organized during the last three days of the conference. This unprecedented number of participants and world leaders reflected the importance of the challenges to be met and the high expectations people had.

However, the Conference was a failure and only led to a weak outcome; a three-page long political Accord, with no binding emission reduction targets. The Conference simply “took note” of the Accord, because of the rejection of the text by several countries, which considered the process as undemocratic. The lack of transparency during the process and the “North-South” divide (conflicting interests and positions between industrialised and developing countries) have been put forward as the main explanation for this failure.

Progress was made at Durban during COP17 in 2011, when 2 actions were decided:

1) Continuation of the Kyoto Protocol for eight more years (“second commitment period”, 2012-2020), with the notable exception of Japan, Russia, Canada and New Zealand, who decided not to take part anymore;

2) Decision to devise a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with some legal elements, covering both developed and developing countries, to come into force in 2020. In other words, the set objective was an agreement that would include the biggest emitters, irrespective of their level of development (US and China alike).


Paris agreement

This second objective was achieved in December 2015, when 195 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, an agreement praised as “historic”, “ambitious” and the “greatest diplomatic success”. The agreement aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.

Is it legally binding? Yes and no… It is, but the emission reduction targets are not… Moreover, it is down to countries to decide on their reduction targets, which need to be “ambitious” and “represent a progression over time”. Weeks after the adoption of the agreement, some top climate experts* published an open letter to The Independent, warning that the agreement is far too weak to prevent harmful impacts (insufficient pledges and not sufficiently binding). According to Climate Action Tracker, the Paris pledges are not sufficient to limit global warming to no more than 2°C (and a warming of 2.7°C should rather be expected in 2100). In a June 2016 article published in Nature, Rogelj et al. establish that the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) will lead to a median warming of 2.6–3.1 degrees Celsius by 2100.

US withdrawal

It would be wrong to presume that the Paris Agreement would have been efficient to mitigate climate change if the United States had stayed, and that it will now be inefficient because they left. As we have seen, the current pledges are insufficient to meet the 2oC target anyway. But it may only make things worse; the US may not pursue any emission reduction efforts and decide not to follow current climate policies, or they may even emit more through investment in highly polluting activities. A more positive scenario would highlight the intention of some American cities to pursue reduction goals, and the possibility that the US join again in a few years’ time, then being only a few years behind. It is also worth noting that the US will only be out of the agreement four years after its entry in force, that is to say in November 2020; in other words, they will still be part of the agreement for nearly all the duration of President Trump’s current term.

What is particularly worrying about the US’ actions is the message sent to people around the world. This may be very detrimental to the global fight against climate change. It is unlikely that other signatories will follow suit and leave as well (even China may now want to play the role of leader – they announced their intention to invest over $300 billion in renewable energy by 2020), but other parties may become reluctant to make major efforts if one of the biggest emitters is not taking part (an argument often advanced under the Kyoto Protocol). Also, the success or failure of international politics has an impact on people’s view of climate change. While the ‘success’ of the Paris agreement was seen as a strong message to climate deniers, the US withdrawal represents their victory. The Paris agreement is not very constraining (countries to decide on their reduction goals, no binding targets, no penalties for non-compliance), which can explain why it has been so widely endorsed. The US could have simply decided to review and lower their emission reduction targets. Their withdrawal can be understood as a political and symbolic move influenced by, and to please, climate deniers. This in itself may have an impact on people’s perception of the problem and their (un)willingness to engage in any personal action and behavioural change.



* Letter signatories:

Professor Paul Beckwith, University of Ottowa; Professor Stephen Salter – Edinburgh University; Professor Peter Wadhams – Cambridge University; Professor James Kennett of University of California; Dr Hugh Hunt – Cambridge University; Dr. Alan Gadian -Senior Scientist, Nation Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, University of Leeds; Dr. Mayer Hillman – Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Institute of the Policy Studies Institute; Dr. John Latham – University of Manchester; Aubrey Meyer  – Director, Global Commons Institute; John Nissen –  Chair Arctic Methane Emergency Group; Kevin Lister – Author of “The Vortex of Violence and why we are losing the war on climate change”

[source: The Independent]