Trump isolated as world unites on Paris climate deal

Toshifumi Kitamura, AFP | US residents living in Japan and locals hold a rally near the US embassy in Tokyo on March 16, 2017

President Donald Trump could announce he is pulling the US out of the Paris accord this week, but experts say nonetheless international commitment to the landmark climate deal signed in France in December 2015 remains strong.


Trump irritated key global allies over the weekend by refusing to stand with the rest of Group of Seven (G7) countries in support of the Paris Agreement during a summit in Italy. Despite finding consensus on other issues, “the entire discussion about climate was very difficult, if not to say very dissatisfying,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters at the gathering of the world’s wealthiest nations.

The leader of Germany, but also those from France, Canada, Italy, Japan and Britain hoped to pressure Trump into respecting the United States’ pledge to curb its carbon emissions. But as the meeting wound down, the unpredictable leader only promised to defer his verdict. “I will make my final decision on the Paris Accord next week!" he tweeted on Saturday.

The accord is a legally-binding UN document that was signed by 195 countries. It came into force last year and has been ratified by 147 countries so far. Trump has nevertheless threatened to withdraw from the deal, in which countries voluntarily pledged to cut back on fossil-fuel consumption. Rich countries also pledged money to help poorer nations transition to clean energy, and deal with the effects of climate change – rising sea levels, drought and increasingly powerful storms.

According to Wendel Trio, director of the Climate Action Network Europe, the Paris Agreement has quickly become “the standard” in the global climate change debate. Less than two years since its historic signing, “countries remain thoroughly committed to use it as a framework to judge their environmental policies,” he said.

The US president’s unwillingness to embrace that standard while in Italy was unsurprising. Trump in the past has called global warming a “hoax” invented by China to undermine the US economy, and lambasted the climate accord – championed by his predecessor Barack Obama – as a “bad deal”.

Earlier this year he appointed Scott Pruitt to head the US Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has publicly questioned the science of climate change and pledged to shelve regulations on fossil fuel companies in the US. Pruitt is among the close advisers pushing Trump to pull out of the accord.

Advocates like Trio were bracing for an unwelcome exit from the US this week, but at the same minimised the fallout. He and others say the still novel agreement enjoys overwhelming support across the globe.

Trump: Increasingly isolated

Climate Action Network Europe’s Trio does not believe the Paris Agreement is a perfect plan to combat global warming and pollution. He says many countries, especially in Europe, are aware that while the goals established in Paris in 2015 were a good start, they don’t go far enough.

However, the instinct of self-preservation remains strong, and countries are quick to accuse others of not pulling their weight. “Countries need to revise contributions, and they know it. But they are hesitating, waiting to see who will move first,” Trio said.

But while rivalries and suspicion exist, he said he doubted any other country would follow suit if the US quit the Paris Agreement, as has been reported in the media.

“Honestly, I think it is wishful thinking from Trump. Some countries are less enthusiastic about the Paris Accord, such as Saudi Arabia or perhaps Russia, but there is a huge difference between saying some countries are less enthusiastic and saying they are thinking of leaving the accord. I have not heard of any country considering this besides the US,” Trio said.

Nick Nutall, the communications director for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN office in charge of overseeing the Paris Agreement and other climate treaties, said he had “no intelligence” of other states considering dropping the Paris Agreement. Rather, he felt there was a “great solidarity” among both developed and developing nations on implementing the international climate pact.

“If anything, Trump has prompted other world leaders to speak even more forcefully in defence of the accord,” Trio said. “We saw this at the G7 meeting, where the other leaders seemed to make climate change the most important issue on the table, which is quite rare. It’s like Trump has incited everyone to be even more united on this issue.”

On Thursday, European and Chinese representatives will start a two-day EU-China summit in Brussels, and Trio said it was likely they would issue a statement specifically on climate change. “It will be to show that among big countries and the US’s main trading partners, climate change remains a high-level issue,” he said.

Beyond national interests

The UNFCCC’s Nutall said his team spends hours every day highlighting climate victories on their website. The threat of Trump dealing the US out of the Paris Agreement would be bad news, the official admits, but such setbacks must be expected.

“This is a long-term transition that is going to take 50 years or longer, and will change a model of development that has been around for two centuries,” Nutall said. “There will be bumps in the road, but the overall trajectory of the transition is what’s important. It shows that the Paris Agreement will deliver on the goals countries set for themselves in December 2015.”

Nutall points to India, which in February announced that it would double its solar energy capacity goal in the next three years. The government announced it would build a total of 50 solar parks to increase its capacity from 20,000 MW to 40,000 MW. At the same time India has pledged to help ramp up solar parks, especially so-called mini grids, across Africa. It will extend a $10 billion line of credit to African countries with this goal.

Another recent and encouraging example can be found in the UK, which in April achieved its first ever “coal-free day”. On April 22 the National Grid electricity distribution network boasted that it had supplied Britain’s electricity needs for a 24-hour period without coal. The feat was achieved as the West Burton 1 power station, the only coal-fired plant running, temporarily went offline, with a National Grid spokesman saying it was a sign of things to come.

China, the world’s leading polluter, is also stepping up efforts to combat climate change. In March the People's Bank of China and the European Investment Bank unveiled a new joint initiative to bolster green investment. The ultimate goal is to increase the confidence of Chinese and international investors to support green finance.

Nutall stressed that while countries are important, they are not the only actors in a global movement to confront climate change. “The global economy is changing before our very eyes,” he said, adding that “thousands of local and regional authorities and businesses,” were powering the transformation. “This is clearly a transition that is unstoppable and irreversible. The only question, and it is an important one, is how fast?” he asked.

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