After months of delays, foot-dragging, inconclusive meetings and further delays, news reports are saying that Donald Trump is poised to announce his decision on the Paris Agreement: He’s bailing.

By staying in the agreement the US had nothing to lose. But by backing out, the US stands to lose plenty.

There are no legal ramifications for the decision. The Paris Agreement is not legally binding, and Trump has shown himself to not be very concerned about international law. “The terms of the Paris Agreement provide that, basically, four years advanced notice needs to be given to withdraw lawfully,” Michael Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School, told Carbon Brief. “However, if a country withdraws prematurely, there are no penalties or sanctions.” 

Still, the decision will have a cascade of political and economic implications for the United States, both domestically and around the world. 

The Paris Agreement is built on what the Obama administration called a “name-and-shame” system. Countries that didn’t live up to their commitment under the agreement — or that backed out of the agreement — wouldn’t face fines or penalties, but they would face the world’s disapproval. No country has ever pulled out of the agreement, and only Syria and Nicaragua declined to join.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Todd Stern, Obama’s chief climate negotiator, said that other countries would view Trump’s decision to pull out as “an act of diplomatic malpractice.”

“Countries large and small, rich and poor, are deeply invested in Paris because they understand the peril of climate change and know the Paris agreement cannot be truly effective without US engagement,” he wrote in the op-ed, which was published before Trump made his decision. Withdrawal is “a slap in the face,” disrespecting other countries interests “and, in turn, eroding the United States’ diplomatic capital,” Stern wrote.

In addition to hurting the US’s standing with its allies, the move will hurt American businesses. “Obviously if you are not a party to the Paris agreement, you will lose out, UN Environment chief Erik Solheim said earlier this month. “And the main losers of course will be the people of the United States itself because all the interesting, fascinating new green jobs would go to China and to the other parts of the world that are investing heavily in this.”

Withdrawal, perhaps surprisingly, also goes against the wishes of many American businesses, including some American fossil fuel companies, who hoped to market coal-friendly carbon capture and storage technology and natural gas to an international audience by maintaining a “seat at the table.”

Paris goals out of reach

At the core of the Paris Agreement are the so-called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” — which are voluntary commitments each country pledges to take to curb climate change.

For the US, this was a promise, made during the Obama administration, to cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 26 percent over 2005 levels. To get there, Obama rolled out the Clean Power Plan in 2014. He also put in place regulations aimed at cutting down on methane and HFCs — two potent greenhouse gases — and increasing the efficiency of buildings and vehicles. Without the US sticking to its promises, the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius — already a long shot — will be virtually impossible to meet.

Obama’s actions had the US on course to cut emissions by 21 percent by 2025, according to an analysis by the Rhodium Group. Obama’s predecessor would have needed to take further steps to cut US emissions to at least 26 percent, as promised. 

Instead, Trump will toss the Clean Power Plan — a key piece of Obama’s efforts to fulfill his Paris pledge — out the window, while attempting to revive the United States’ foundering coal industry. According to the Rhodium Group analysis, under Trump the US can expect to see emissions level out around 14 percent below 2005 levels, largely thanks to chief natural gas and renewable energy, which stole market share from coal.

Good for China, bad for everyone else

US withdrawal from the agreement jeopardizes its future. The US is the world’s second-largest emitter. If it decides to do as it pleases, ignoring the threat of climate change, other large, heavily polluting countries have little incentive to cut their own emissions. Countries such as India and Brazil may rethink their commitment to the deal before countries convene for the annual UNFCCC summit this November.

One developing country that will likely stay the course is the world’s number one emitter of greenhouse gases, China. The US’s decision to withdrawal could, arguably, even be a boon for the country. Since Trump was elected, China has been seeking to frame itself as the world’s new leader on the climate-related issues. At a speech in Davos days before Trump was inaugurated, Chinese President Xi Jinping championed the agreement, telling the elites assembled for the World Economic Forum that “we should join hands and rise to the challenge.”

For the moment, India also has little incentive to leave. Both India and China are ahead of schedule with their Paris Agreement commitments, and are continuing to move away from coal — not just because the world wants them to, but because large-scale renewable energy projects create jobs for both countries peoples, and because a shift away from coal will help improve air quality in cities where pollution regularly reaches dangerous levels. 

But for some smaller countries, the issue is not merely one of diplomacy — it is a question of life or death. “My country’s survival depends on every country delivering on the promises they made in Paris. Our own commitment to it will never waiver,” Hilda Heine, the president of the Marshall Islands, told The Guardian.

An opening for a future president

Trump’s decision does not doom US involvement in the Paris Agreement. A future president could, presumably, rejoin. “There is nothing in the Paris Agreement that explicitly addresses a situation where a party has withdrawn, that withdrawal has become final, and then the party seeks to re-join,” Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told UN Dispatch.

He noted that Trump cannot, legally, withdraw until three years after the Paris Agreement has entered into force. Trump could ignore these rules, but the UN won’t. After those three years, withdrawal will not take effect for another full year, meaning, as far as the UN is concerned, the US cannot actually be fully withdrawn until November 4, 2020

Trump could, however, pull out of the underlying UNFCCC treaty, which undergirds the agreement and was signed by President George W. Bush in 1992. That would speed up US exit.

The process for re-joining would be unusual. “Under Article 20, the Paris Agreement was only open for signature until April 21, 2017,” Burger said. “It remains open for ‘accession’ indefinitely. Accession post-Trump would be very similar, perhaps exactly the same, as signature pre-Trump. In essence, the US would be voluntarily submitting the terms already agreed to by others.”

Susan Biniaz, a leading climate change negotiator and a legal adviser to the State Department for more than three decades, agreed. If a future president wanted to sign the US back onto the Paris Agreement, “there wouldn’t be legal impediments” she told UN Dispatch. “A future president could presumably re-join the same way.”

For this reason, the dream of global cooperation to confront the climate crisis is not yet dead. But Trump is doing all he can to kick the can down the road for several more years. And when facing a problem as urgent as climate change, several more years is already several years too late. 

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