Is the Paris Agreement necessary?

The U.S. withdrawal is an opportunity to make the rules of the Paris Agreement stronger and more ambitious

June 09, 2017 12:27 am | Updated August 20, 2017 11:58 am IST

Left | Chandra Bhushan


The U.S. withdrawal is an opportunity to make the rules of the Paris Agreement stronger and more ambitious

Candidate Trump had called climate change a “hoax”. President Trump followed this up with anti-climate policies since assuming office. So the June 2 announcement was just a formality. But with this formality, he has made the Paris Agreement meaningless.

Long U.S. reluctance

For many of us who followed the negotiations closely, this was coming. The Paris Agreement was designed for and pushed by the U.S. for its own convenience. As it didn’t want to take full responsibility and do its part, the U.S. pushed for an agreement that was a ‘common minimum denominator’. It made the commitments voluntary and the accord non-legally binding and non-punitive.

All this because President Barack Obama didn’t want this agreement to be ratified by his Senate. Once this happened, we knew that the Republicans would not accept it. Then it was all about who would win — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

But the fact is even if Ms. Clinton would have been the President, the U.S. would have done little to help solve the climate change conundrum. It committed minimum emissions reduction: 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

If we consider 1990 as baseline, the U.S. would have cut emissions by a mere 23% by 2030. In comparison, the then 28-nation European Union’s commitment was to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

This is the crux of the issue: whether Democrats or Republicans, the U.S. doesn’t want to take “fair and equitable” share of responsibilities.

This is because there is a fundamental belief in the U.S. that negotiating climate change is “negotiating American lifestyle”. This is why Bill Clinton agreed to the Kyoto Protocol (after diluting commitments), but George W. Bush did not ratify it; and Mr. Obama ratified the weak Paris Agreement, but Mr. Trump junked it.

The U.S. is historically the largest contributor to climate pollution. It is currently the second-largest polluter in the world, and has one of the highest per capita emissions.

Surging ahead without U.S.

So, how do we deal with the “climate-problem” country?

Some commentators have alluded that other countries should step forward and share the burden left by the U.S. This is a very simplistic way of looking at the problem. The world — the U.S. and us — cannot combat climate change without changing the way we drive, build homes or consume goods.

One of the unintended consequences of Mr. Trump’s decision is that it has unified the world on climate change. This is an opportunity to strengthen the Paris Agreement.

We can do this by: (a) Refusing to renegotiate Paris Agreement to reduce the commitments of the U.S. since any dilution of the agreement will make it worthless.

(b) Isolating the U.S. during negotiations, since it remains a member of the agreement for the next four years and can potentially destroy it from within.

(c) Making the rules of the Paris Agreement, being negotiated now, stronger and ambitious.

While other countries must step up their commitment to cut emissions, they should also put punitive measures, including economic and trade sanctions, to ensure that countries such as the U.S. don’t walk away.

Critical period

It is time to call a spade a spade: U.S. obduracy on climate change has ensured the world today is in the danger zone and will go critical soon. Since 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed, the U.S. has played offence — finger-pointing at others and justifying its own lack of action. It is time the rest of us stopped playing defence.


Right | Barun Mitra


Rather than obsess about Paris, India will do well to let the free market guide itself to more efficiency


Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord is the right decision but for completely wrong reasons. It will not impact the global temperature in the long run, but will undermine political and economic freedoms in the short term. What’s worse, the contagion of protectionism and nationalism in the U.S. is likely to infect the world.

Failure of governments

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders had sought to leverage the power of the state to prod and goad, tax and penalise their citizens to a particular line of thought and behaviour. Mr. Trump is now using the same instruments of political power to move his country into another direction. No one pollutes for the sake of pollution. Were you to account for car ownership per 1,000 people across countries here’s what emerges: India - 32, China - 140, Taiwan & Malaysia - 330 to 360, Japan and most Western developed countries - 500 to 600, and some small and large countries, including the U.S. - 800 plus. Yet, the problems of congestion and pollution are much more severe in poorer countries than richer ones.


Poor environmental quality is not due to market failure, but due to the failure of governments and regulators to facilitate reshaping boundaries of property rights in line with changing economic realities and technical possibilities. If the rights are well-defined, externalities — such as emission and pollution — can be internalised and provide incentive to market players to improve efficiency and reduce pollution. Environment quality is like a value-added product. It becomes affordable as people become richer. Put another way, it’s poverty that makes the poor vulnerable to natural calamities. Increased consumption in a competitive and free market provides the best incentive to reduce pollution, clean up the physical environment while simultaneously improving general well being. India and China greatly improved their energy efficiency and lowered the carbon intensity of their economies in the last couple of decades not because they explicitly worked to achieve those goals, but because they opened their economies to greater competition. The transition from filament bulbs to CFL (compact fluorescent lamps) took more than a decade. The transition to LED (light-emitting diode) is happening at a faster pace. These inventions didn’t come into being because governments willed them so. On the contrary, they bore the burden of additional taxes for being ‘novel’ before becoming objects of mass consumption.

A thousand years ago, there was hardly any significant use of coal, 150 years ago there was no petroleum, and there is nothing to make these fuels last longer than necessary, and be replaced by a whole host of alternatives. Not because any economic planner designed it that way, but because that is how the invisible hand of the market creates the new, and replaces the old. Respect for property rights, rule of law and free markets ensures a competitive environment, constantly improving efficiency and cleaning up the environment.

Rather than travelling on the road to Paris, and plan new targets for renewable or impose high taxes on energy, or walking on the steps of Mr. Trump, India will do well to free the spirit of enterprise and free trade. We need to trust the creativity of entrepreneurs to constantly strive for better products, and capacity of consumers to learn and choose in their best interest. Protecting freedom locally will contribute to economic prosperity and environmental dividend globally.


Centre|T. Jayaraman


The U.S. pullout has sparked a surge of commitment to the accord, but not a focus on its deep flaws

Make no mistake, U.S. President Donald Trump has just dealt a body blow to the Paris Agreement. In its refusal to acknowledge the significance of this threat to global security, his decision to pull the U.S. out of the climate accord has virtually no parallel since the beginning of the post-World War II era of multilateralism.

Ripple effect likely

The rejection of the Kyoto Protocol by the George W. Bush presidency, signed by the Clinton administration in 1997, a rejection driven by both Republican and Democrat legislators, caused an 18-year hiatus before a new agreement could be crafted.

The new hiatus may not last as long, but that is small comfort when the climate threat has advanced considerably since then. Mr. Trump’s move is likely to set off a domino effect of inaction among other known climate laggards, the U.K., Australia, Canada, Japan and Russia being some of the most prominent among these.

Despite the diplomatic rhetoric, the weakening or dismantling of their domestic institutional arrangements for climate action has already given cause for alarm, while the radical deceleration in climate research by one of its leaders, the U.S., will also have grave consequences.

What exacerbates the danger is the hype that has greeted the Paris agreement since its signing and the illusions this has promoted. The agreement leaves the solution of a global collective action problem to purely voluntary action, with binding commitments only to processes and not to the adequacy of efforts to enforce greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, especially by the developed nations.

More bizarrely, even as the accord sharply diluted any attempt to ensure equity for developing countries, it also promised to attempt to limit global temperature increase to not more than 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels. But drowning any articulation of these deep flaws, the Trump decision has now renewed a surge of commitment to an already weak agreement, an outcome that will worsen the prospects of holding global temperature increase to even the 2°C limit.

No talk of climate leadership by the European Union and China, or joint action by other national, regional and local governments worldwide, can obscure the dangers of non-participation by the U.S. Without one of the world’s largest emitters on board, global emissions cannot be limited to the global carbon budget appropriate to the 2°C goal. Any such attempt, even as the U.S. consumes global carbon space at its current pace, will turn the screws, ever more tightly, on the development options of India and a large section of the G-77.

More fundamentally, Mr. Trump’s decision has called the bluff on the real rationale of the agreement, articulated by the outgoing Secretary of State, John Kerry, a year after Paris at Marrakech. Acknowledging the inadequacy of the agreement’s mitigation goals, Mr. Kerry argued that it nevertheless sent a strong signal to business the world over, and would stimulate industry and markets to action. This rationale has been reiterated by many following the Trump decision. Billionaire businessman-politician Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to provide a fraction of his vast fortune as a contribution to climate action speaks of the hubris of global capital in the contemporary world, of seeing personal charity as the key to the security of the planet.

The long-term future of the world hangs today by the slender thread of faith in neo-liberal economic theory and the hope and a prayer that this will work. Surely something more tangible and substantial is needed.

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