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.”


Paris Agreement: Better with the U.S. in

It is understandably agonizing for other countries to contemplate in any way condoning the idea of the United States weakening its climate commitment under the Paris Agreement. At the G7 summit later this week, other leaders are hoping President Donald Trump will heed the rising calls to keep the U.S in Paris.

But they worry: At what cost?

The unfortunate reality is that – even with a weaker target – we’re all better off with the U.S. in than out.

Getting countries on the same page in Paris was a monumental achievement, in diplomatic terms and, more importantly, in planetary terms. Simply put, the Paris Agreement gives us our best shot ever at avoiding calamitous global warming.

It does that by instilling greater confidence among countries that each is willing to do its part – and is committed to doing more in the years ahead. The agreement is hardly a guarantee. Achieving its goals will take sustained and growing effort at every level. But that effort is easier to muster knowing others are contributing their fair share.

The threat of the United States lowering its target – by all indications, the only scenario under which it would stay in – puts that basic bargain at risk.

As a matter of law (see our analysis), Paris does not preclude a party from lowering its target. The agreement is a mix of binding commitments (these are largely procedural) and normative expectations. Its exhortations to parties to progressively strengthen their efforts – and to adjust their existing targets only upward – fall into the latter category.

That said, it’s hard to conclude that a decision by the world’s largest economy to weaken its target would be in keeping with the spirit of the Paris Agreement. 

Why, then, should other countries go along?

The blunt – and undiplomatic – response is that it’s not up to them. The better response is that the agreement’s objectives are ultimately best served by keeping the U.S. on board.

For the moment, the extraordinary momentum built in Paris is still going strong. Both China and India now appear on track to meet their Paris targets ahead of schedule. U.S. emissions, meanwhile, reached a 25-year low last year, and growing state, local, and business efforts will help make up for some of Trump’s rollback of federal measures. This is especially true where market forces are already driving down emissions from power generation.

But this is just the start of the wholesale transformation of energy and transportation systems that will be required over the coming decades to even come close to the Paris goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Economic competitiveness can work in our favor, as countries and companies vie for their share of the growing clean energy market. Indeed, enhanced U.S. competitiveness is one of the benefits cited by the major companies that signed recent full-page ads sponsored by C2ES and other efforts urging the president to stay in Paris.

But competitiveness is double-edged: There are in fact costs to reducing emissions. And some governments will invariably be less willing to force their industries to absorb them if their U.S. competitors are not.

The risk is not that other countries will quit Paris if the U.S. does – why expose themselves to certain international censure? The real risk is that they will be less diligent in meeting their existing targets, which after all are not binding, and will be less ambitious than they otherwise would be in the next round of targets due in 2020. 

There’s no denying there would be similar risks if the U.S. were to stay in but weaken its target. Some countries might be tempted to follow the U.S. example and relax their own goals. The Paris framework would be frayed. But we face a far greater unraveling if the U.S. withdraws outright.

The United States is not only the world’s largest economy but also, cumulatively, its largest greenhouse gas emitter. While China is now the top annual emitter, as far as the atmosphere and other nations are concerned, no country bears greater responsibility for climate change than the United States. To now detach itself from the global compact it helped forge would leave a leadership vacuum no other nation could fill.

Technically, it’s true, the United States could later rejoin. But that wouldn’t be something we could count on. Politically, Paris could be irrevocably damaged in U.S. eyes. And without U.S. diplomats at the table, the Paris implementing rules now being negotiated wouldn’t reflect U.S. concerns. 

It is unfair to ask the rest of the world to, once again, accommodate the vagaries of U.S. climate politics. The bitter reality, though, is that having pledged to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, the only politically viable pathway for the president to now stay in is to show he has secured a “better deal.”

The Paris Agreement was designed to be durable. No one expected the first major test of its resilience would come so soon. Other countries cannot be expected to welcome or endorse a weaker U.S. target. But by simply acknowledging rather than rejecting it, they can help keep an unfortunate setback from becoming an utter disaster, and can help preserve the fundamental framework that so many worked so hard to create.

An American in Marrakech

For 10 exhausting days, from the moment I arrived in Marrakech for the latest U.N. conference on climate change, I found myself thrust into the uneasy role of unofficial emissary for a country transformed overnight.

COP 22 had started on a high note, as thousands from around the world celebrated the remarkably swift entry into force of the Paris Agreement just days earlier. But then in a flash, with news of Donald Trump’s surprise victory, the historic gains of Paris seemed suddenly at risk of unraveling.

By the time I touched down in Marrakech two days after the election, the initial shock had given way to deep anxiety, with rumors swirling that president-elect Trump would proclaim at any moment that he would pull the United States from the Paris Agreement.

As a strictly nonpartisan organization, C2ES has worked closely over the years with Democrats and Republicans alike. Before and after the election, we made clear our willingness to work with the next administration and others to build common ground.

On the ground in Marrakech, like other veteran COP-goers from the United States, I found myself besieged by delegates desperate for insight into what had happened and, more importantly, what would happen now. I had precious little to offer.

My first instinct was to note that one huge lesson of the entire campaign was the utter unpredictability of political outcomes – and that would be true going forward as well.

True, the incoming president had declared climate change a hoax and vowed to “cancel” the Paris Agreement. But, I’d note, he’d also denied his climate denialism and, back in 2009, he’d signed an open letter in The New York Times supporting climate legislation.  Plus, there were already signs he was tempering his views on other issues like immigration and health care.

At two C2ES-sponsored side events, I was joined by major U.S. companies, a top California official and a Democratic staffer from the Senate (we’d invited a speaker from the Trump transition team but they had no one in Marrakech). We all made the case that the strong momentum in the United States toward a clean-energy transition is bound to continue.

But we could offer no solid assurance that our collective efforts had not just suffered a real blow.

Against that uncertainty, it was heartening to hear country after country reaffirm its commitment to the Paris Agreement and to a low-carbon future. The negotiations, now focused on filling in the details of the new Paris architecture, continued. And in the end they achieved the same outcomes they likely would have.

So for the moment, at least, the world is pressing ahead. But as we all head home from Marrakech, the uncertainty still looms. Should President-elect Trump make good on his campaign promise to withdraw from Paris, there is no denying that the consequences could be grave.

The Paris Agreement is a remarkable achievement. Its pragmatic approach preserves the full sovereignty of nations to decide their own paths forward, while also providing them the means to hold one another accountable. It is precisely the sort of agreement U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have long advocated.

But the agreement will only achieve its full promise if the more detailed rules being negotiated over the next two years are sound. The best way to ensure that is for the United States to remain at the table, honoring its commitments, and providing the kind of leadership that only it can.Flags at COP 22

The enduring power of US-China climate leadership

US-China FlagsIt would have been hard to imagine just a few short years ago that the United States and China would – together – be the ones driving a stronger global response to climate change.

For years, each claimed inaction by the other as an excuse for not doing more. But with their simultaneous acceptance today of the Paris Agreement, the world’s two largest economies and emitters committed themselves to a low-carbon future, and solidified a new global framework that will keep pressure on all countries to keep doing more.

The precise mix of motivations varies between the two. But fundamentally, the heads of both the United States and China have assessed the risks and opportunities presented by climate change, and they have decided it is in their nations’ interests – and is their responsibility as global leaders – to do more.

How faithfully the two countries now follow through on their commitments will depend in part on a host of shifting political and economic currents, and who assumes the reins in the years ahead.

But with their leadership up to and since last year’s Paris conference, the United States and China have helped establish new mechanisms and unleash new energies that ensure a staying power beyond the comings and goings of individual governments.

With the Paris Agreement, countries have applied the lessons of a quarter-century of fitful climate diplomacy to create a new framework that offers the best hope ever of an effective international response.

The agreement binds countries to a set of processes requiring them to: tell the world how they’re going to fight climate change; report regularly on how well they’re doing; undergo review by experts and by other countries; and, every five years, say what they’ll do next.

It is, in essence, institutionalized peer (and public) pressure. And if it works as designed, the agreement will over time strengthen confidence that countries are doing their fair share, making it easier for all to do more.

Beyond the agreement itself, and the role of national governments, Paris also will keep nurturing stronger action through its powerful “signaling” effect. For many mayors, governors, CEOs and other real-world decision makers, Paris was a catalytic moment, and its signals continue to resound.

From Warren Buffett, who cited Paris in his annual letter to shareholders as further impetus for Berkshire Hathaway’s multibillion-dollar investments in renewable power, to Moody’s, which is now taking countries’ Paris pledges into account in rating future investments, mainstream business is internalizing the Paris goals.

Mayors, too, are reading Paris as a cue for stronger action. In a new Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, more than 7,000 mayors in 119 countries pledged to set climate goals beyond those of their national governments. C2ES recently joined with The U.S. Conference of Mayors to form the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, bringing mayors and business leaders together to forge collaborative approaches to cutting emissions.

In the long run, this activation of mayors, CEOs and other “non-state actors” could prove as decisive as the actions of national governments in determining the success of Paris.

No one moment and no one agreement can ensure the long-term transformation needed to keep climate change in check. But today’s U.S.-China announcement is the latest in a series of breakthrough moments that could mean the difference between a successful low-carbon transition and a future of climate calamity.




Moving forward with the Paris Agreement

The Bonn Conference Center, site of May 2016 UNFCCC discussions.

Climate change negotiators gathering for the first time since hammering out the Paris Agreement faced an unexpected quandary – preparing for the agreement to formally take effect so quickly.

The agreement is intended to guide climate efforts starting in 2020, and originally it was expected it would take a few years for governments to complete their ratification processes and formally bring the treaty “into force.”

But when it was ceremonially “opened for signature” last month in New York, an astounding 175 countries signed. And with the United States and China declaring they will go the next step and formally join the agreement later this year, it’s looking very likely the threshold for entry into force will be cleared next year if not sooner (55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions must formally consent).

This is great news. It shows that the tremendous political momentum that produced the agreement in December is still going strong – even if it is complicating life a bit for the teams of negotiators who now must flesh out the broad Paris architecture with a set of more detailed implementing decisions.

The unanticipated issue is how to ensure that countries that aren’t able to formally join as quickly can still have a hand in shaping the implementing decisions once the agreement enters into force. The lawyers have identified potential fixes and the issue should be ironed out at COP 22 this November in Marrakech, Morocco.

Beyond that, the negotiators are just beginning to grapple with a host of technically and politically challenging design issues – for instance, the specifics of the transparency system that will keep countries accountable, and of the every-five-years cycles for assessing collective progress and updating countries’ national contributions.

The two-week meeting just wrapping up Bonn, Germany, where the United Nations climate secretariat is headquartered, was largely about getting the post-Paris process organized.

Following the frenzied rounds of talks leading up to and culminating in Paris, there were signs of negotiating fatigue. But the “Paris spirit” by and large prevailed, with parties working through their differences about the process going forward. 

The more substantive discussions during the second week foreshadowed some of the challenges ahead in fleshing out the Paris framework. One of the trickiest will be sorting out exactly how to apply Paris’ more nuanced approach to differentiating responsibilities among countries, which replaces the Kyoto Protocol’s stark divide between developed and developing countries.

However quickly the Paris Agreement formally enters into force, it will likely take until 2018 to complete the implementing decisions. Continued high-level political attention can help ensure that the negotiations stay on track – and, perhaps more importantly, that countries push forward with the domestic policies needed to deliver on their commitments.