Can the Paris deal be renegotiated?

As eager as President Trump seemed to be to denounce and bolt from the Paris Agreement, he also appeared eager to project a willingness to re-engage. Three times in his speech yesterday in the Rose Garden, he declared an openness to renegotiating the landmark climate agreement or negotiating a new deal “that’s fair.”

It’s hardly clear what the president might have in mind, but let’s consider some of the options.

First, it’s far-fetched to think that other countries are so desperate for the United States stay in that they’re going to shred the Paris Agreement. The agreement is a sensible approach to an urgent challenge, which is why it’s been universally embraced – and universally reaffirmed -- despite Trump’s skepticism.

Other countries would much rather that the U.S. stay in, but they’ve grown weary of accommodating the vagaries of U.S. climate politics. The Paris Agreement, like the Kyoto Protocol before it, was designed largely to U.S. specifications. And in both cases, after getting what it wanted, the U.S. still walked away.

As France, Germany and Italy made clear within hours of the president’s speech, the basic terms of the agreement are not open for renegotiation.

As for a new agreement, if it’s meant as an alternative to Paris, forget it. On the other hand, if the president wants to structure some kind of side deal that would bring the United States back into Paris, other countries may be prepared to listen. Such a deal could, for instance, ramp up international support for clean energy technologies.

That’s only viable, though, if the United States brings something to the table. And that doesn’t seem easy if the president is rolling back climate protections, as he’s directed Scott Pruitt at EPA to do, and drastically cutting funds for technology development, as his proposed budget would do.

So what’s left?

President Trump harped repeatedly on the “unfairness” of Paris. One relevant metric is how the U.S. target compares to other countries’ emissions-cutting goals. Another he cited is how much the U.S. spends to support developing countries. Whether or not one accepts his notions of fairness, the reality is that both of these are within his control.

Under the Paris Agreement, every party sets its own emissions goal (or “nationally determined contribution”) and is free to adjust it at any time. While a downward adjustment would hardly be in the spirit of the agreement, it’s an option available to the president, and one way he could say he’s secured a “better deal.”

This option was being actively considered in the White House and, judging from what senior aides told the press after the president’s remarks, doesn’t appear to be off the table. Maybe what we’re seeing is a political calculation that the president can play to his base now by fulfilling a campaign pledge to withdraw, while keeping open the option of “rejoining” later with a lower target.

As for support for developing countries, if the president thinks the Paris Agreement commits the United States (or any other country) to a specific level of funding, he’s misinformed. It doesn’t. It reaffirms a general commitment the U.S. made in 1992 (in the Senate-approved U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change) to help developing countries address and cope with climate change. But, as with emission reductions, Paris leaves it to each country to decide its level of contribution.

President Obama had earlier pledged $3 billion toward the newly established Green Climate Fund, and delivered a third of that. It’s now up to President Trump and Congress whether the U.S. gives any more, and there’s very little expectation internationally that it will, at least any time soon.

Fairness is a tricky thing and, ultimately, is in the eye of the beholder. A durable deal is feasible only if all governments feel they can defend their commitments as fair both at home and to the international community. Paris works in part because it gives countries the flexibility to calibrate their commitments – and recalibrate them, when necessary – to meet this two-part test.

As far as other nations (and the atmosphere) are concerned, no country bears greater responsibility for climate change than the United States – cumulatively, still the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.   Yet President Trump evidently feels some recalibration is in order. If fairness in his eyes is a question of the U.S. target and U.S. support for developing countries, he has the power to adjust both, without leaving Paris. Maybe those are the makings of his “better deal.”