Is the Paris Agreement necessary?

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.

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