Whither the world after America’s retreat?

China and Europe plan to lead climate efforts

IN THE end, not even the pope’s pleas were enough to persuade Donald Trump to go back on his campaign promise to leave the Paris agreement. The arguments of his advisers, such as strategist Steve Bannon and the head of America’s Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, proved decisive. Populist concerns trumped planetary ones. On June 1st, after several days of speculation, the president announced that America will leave the climate deal. “I was elected to represent citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he declared. He described the Paris agreement as a “self-inflicted major economic wound”. His chief of staff, Reince Priebus, wore a green tie for the occasion.

The climate deal, which seeks to keep the rise in average global temperatures “well below” 2°C, compared with pre-industrial times, was adopted in December 2015 by 195 countries. Such wide endorsement reflects its modest aims and flexible construction: almost all the signatories made voluntary pledges to curb emissions of greenhouse gases by whatever means that seem to them most feasible and cheap. Less than a year later the deal came into force. So far, 147 countries, responsible for almost 83% of emissions, have signed up. Mr Trump said he was willing to renegotiate better terms for America under the agreement. But America's existing commitment under Paris—a cut in its greenhouse-gas emissions of 26%-28%, compared to its 2005 level of pollution, by 2025—was so modest, that it is hard to take that seriously. America is already almost halfway to meeting that target, without having embraced almost any of the costly environmental regulations Mr Trump rails against.

The risks posed by a changing climate require action. Last year was the hottest since records began, and 16 of the 17 warmest years have occurred since 2001. Sea level is rising and the polar regions are melting. Extreme storms, droughts and winds already threaten the safety and livelihood of millions. Despite all this, America is now attempting to leave. It will be a complex process that could take years. Renegotiating the Paris accord, or replacing it, could be even harder. Reaching the deal took decades in the first place. Countries which “bent over backwards” to please America—by ensuring the deal was not legally binding among other measures—are hardly likely to start again from scratch points out Paul Bledsoe, a climate policy expert from American University in Washington, DC.

Some say good riddance, arguing that they would prefer to have a recalcitrant America outside than risk seeing the accord undermined from the inside. How America actually behaves is more important than whether it is in the deal or not, says David Victor, an expert in climate-change politics from the University of California, San Diego. But the withdrawal of the world’s second-largest polluter (behind China) cannot but have an impact. The way countries’ environmental commitments are to be measured and reported under the accord is still being discussed; without America pressing for diligence and openness, the provisions are certain to be weaker. Efforts to ramp up pledges by 2020, as the deal envisions, will also be harmed.

Promises of rich-world cash were part of the reason so many developing countries signed up. America was to be one of its biggest sources. Before he left office, Barack Obama managed to supply a third of the $3bn that America had promised to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, set up in 2010 as part of an international pledge to transfer $100bn of climate cash a year from rich countries to poor ones by 2020. Even without the other two-thirds, that makes America among the largest of the fund’s many (public and private) donors—as Mr Trump pointed out. Much of the money will be spent on adapting to climate change, rather than trying to prevent it. By leaving the Paris accord, Mr Trump has signalled that American cash sources will dry up.

Research by the OECD, a group of mostly rich countries, suggests that poor countries received $62bn in public and private climate finance in 2014, up from $52bn in 2013. More is needed. Fortunately, the cost of clean energy is plummeting. Solar power is increasingly competitive with gas and coal as a source of cheap power. China invests far more in it than any other country. It plans to have nearly 150 gigawatts of installed solar capacity by the end of the decade, triple what it has now. Meanwhile the cost of batteries in electric vehicles continues to drop. Poor countries benefit from the green expertise of others—especially when given freely through climate initiatives. India is installing huge numbers of solar panels, too, roughly in line with its Paris pledge.

Environmental laggards, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, will revel in the poor precedent America is setting. But plenty of other countries have said they will rally around the deal. “China will continue to implement the promises made in the Paris agreement,” said the country’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, just hours before Mr’s Trump’s pageantry. Asked about climate change on a visit to Germany in the past week, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, said that playing with the future of coming generations is “morally criminal”. China, Canada and the European Union recently agreed to hold a ministerial meeting on the Paris agreement in September.

They may quite like the idea of filling the leadership vacuum left by America. It was America, together with China, that made the accord possible in the first place through a new climate alliance. Even small gestures could present big political opportunities. America is the largest financial contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists who advise governments on global warming, providing about $3.1m a year. That tab is small enough for another country to pick it up—along with the prestige that would come from paying for the most authoritative body on climate science.
Mr Trump claimed the Paris agreement was a bad deal for his country. But as any expert negotiator knows, breaking one deal makes it harder to get a good one next time.

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