Trump Exit Won’t Bar Successor From Rejoining Climate Pact

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By Dean Scott

President Donald Trump’s June 1 exit from the Paris climate pact will almost surely strengthen China’s hand—and to some extent Russia’s—as the more than 190 nations still in the pact face years of negotiations over implementing the deal.

The president’s attempt to soften his announcement of U.S. withdrawal with a vow to renegotiate the deal—even though there appears to be little interest by other countries to do so—did little to placate other nations and environmental groups. They were quick to note it was the second time in 16 years the U.S. has walked away from a climate deal, both times under a Republican president.

The exit could have some unintended consequences as well, creating a vacuum in the talks that embolden China’s strength by removing its most formidable adversary in implementing the deal and giving more leverage to Russia, which has yet to ratify the measure. Future negotiations will need to address prickly issues such as how to verify whether nations are making good on their pledges to combat climate change.

A senior administration official told reporters Trump’s vow to “begin negotiations to reenter” the deal on better terms for the US was “sincere.” But the president’s vow to end what he sees as wasteful U.S. support for international climate funds stood in stark contrast to President George W. Bush, who backed billions of dollars in such aid after essentially withdrawing the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.

One Day, the U.S. Could Return

Trump’s announcement, which brought an end to a furious battle between factions in his administration that either favored staying in or getting out of the Obama-negotiated deal, won’t prevent a future president from re-joining the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“The United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord,” Trump said, speaking from the White House Rose Garden, before repeatedly bashing the 2015 deal as bad for the U.S. economy but good for China.

Obama was faulted for using his executive authority to accept the Paris deal to avoid a nearly impossible Senate ratification. That left it vulnerable to a Trump exit but also ensures that a future president could just as easily sign the U.S. back on to the Paris Agreement, according to Jim Connaughton, who led U.S. climate negotiations for both terms of the Bush administration.

“That’s really easy for a future a future president—you just rejoin it” Connaughton, who backed keeping the U.S. in the Paris deal, told Bloomberg BNA.

Withdraw to Take Four Years

Technically, Trump was only announcing he intends to exit the Paris deal; under the agreement, the U.S. cannot leave the deal until four years after the pact went into force, which happened on Nov. 4, 2016. That means that the U.S. can’t officially withdraw until that same date in 2020, which falls one day after the next presidential election, according to a tweet from Brian Deese, a senior climate adviser for Obama.

But that hurdle is largely a technical one given Trump has already moved to roll back Obama power plant carbon pollution limits and other climate rules that were the heart of the U.S. Paris pledge.

Trump put much of the blame on what he said was a climate deal that treated China with kid gloves. China pledged under the accord only to peak its emissions by 2030, Trump noted, though the president ignored other actions China is taking including ratcheting up its use of renewable energy and cutting the carbon intensity of its economy.

“[China] will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years, 13,” Trump said. “They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us.”

While China, India, and other developing nations have for months vowed they’ll stay in the deal no matter what the U.S. chose to do, it’s unclear whether they’ll remain as committed with the world’s largest historical greenhouse gas emitter now headed toward the sidelines.

“We are certainly taking for granted that all of these countries will remain committed” indefinitely, Keith Benes, a former State Department attorney who tracked environmental and energy developments, told Bloomberg BNA.

Lost Leverage on Transparency

The departure of the U.S. is also likely to embolden China in negotiations over reporting and verification requirements, Benes said, because a U.S. departure from the talks will mean the biggest proponent of rigorous verification won’t be in the room anymore.

“We were much more willing to be the bad guys on issues we felt were important, such as transparency,” Benes said.

While there remains plenty of support for strong transparency measures among European nations and other parties still in the deal, “this would still be a big loss of leverage” on the issue, he said.

Todd Stern, who led U.S. negotiations toward the Paris deal for the Obama administration, sounded a hopeful note that such negotiations could continue with an eye toward the U.S. ultimately returning to the Paris Agreement in a May 31 article for the Atlantic.

“I believe countries will stay in the Paris climate agreement and work to build it into a regime that will enable us to meet the climate challenge,” Stern wrote on the eve of Trump’s announcement. The countries should do so “in a manner that will pave the way for re-entry by an enlightened American administration in the years ahead.”

Exhibit A: India

One country that could ultimately re-think its own commitment to the Paris deal is India, Benes said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has thus far vowed he won’t retreat on its pledged climate actions, which include getting 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.

Thus far “Modi is saying, ‘we’re going to stay in and do our renewable targets just as we said.’ But what happens domestically over time, where the people of that country are likely to become more skeptical” that it should be maintaining its climate pledge even as the U.S. walks away from the deal, Benes said.

U.S. withdrawal also is likely to embolden Eastern European nations that have already been reluctant to move away from coal, including Hungary and Poland.

Then there’s Russia, Benes said, which gained enormous leverage and was able to extract significant concessions for it to join the Kyoto Protocol once the U.S. abandoned the deal.

Russia still essentially has one foot in and one foot out of a Paris pact that has been ratified by 147 parties: it joined nearly 200 nations in striking a deal in 2015 but has yet to ratify it. Russia was the largest emitter still holding out on ratifying the agreement.

Russia accounts for about 5 percent of global emissions; the U.S. withdrawal would mean a nation that accounts for just over 14 percent of global emissions, second only to China, is essentially leaving the accord.

State, Corporate Efforts to Fill Vacuum?

Trump’s announcement triggered a flurry of new pronouncements from states and U.S. companies to fill what is likely to be a large gap between the Paris pledge put forth by Obama—to cut U.S. emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels. Some analysts suggest that Trump’s climate rollbacks could cut those reductions in half.

Vicki Arroyo, executive director for the Georgetown Climate Center, said advocates of climate action have a template for responding to a U.S. withdrawal from international climate action: Bush’s 2001 withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. That led northeastern states to form the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which capped carbon emission from power plants. Individual states including California also followed suit by passing their own mandatory emissions reductions, she noted.

“This is not first time we’ve been here, but administrations do come and go,” said Arroyo, who worked for the EPA during the Clinton administration. “But we’re confident a large number of cities and state will be doing their share,” she said, even if all those and voluntary corporate efforts are unlikely to make up for the loss of U.S. climate regulations under Trump.

The governors of three states—California, New York, and Washington—followed Trump’s announcement with the formation of a new U.S. Climate Alliance, a platform to gather together states that remain committed to the U.S. meeting its Paris pledge.

Advocates Vow to Redouble Efforts

Environmental groups, which had been holding out hope for months that Trump might be persuaded to stay in the Paris deal, were clearly disappointed in the president’s announced exit.

“We’re seeing the impact of climate change every day,” Heather Coleman of Oxfam America told reporters after Trump’s announcement. “This just marked the moment when the U.S. became a pariah on the issue of climate change.”

John Coequyt, of the Sierra Club, said continued advances in clean energy technologies would continue, as would the trend away from U.S. coal-fired power plants, regardless of Trump’s Paris exit.

“Nothing that the president has done today can stop that or roll back that process,” he said.

—With assistance from Catherine Douglas Moran and Cheryl Bolen

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at DScott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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