Just when the world was coming to terms with the fact that the United Nation’s climate conference will be holding in Madrid, Spain and not in Santiago, Chile, the president of the United States announced that he was pulling his country out of the Paris Agreement. The Paris Climate Agreement stands as one climate agreement that all countries have endorsed for tackling global warming. Now, except the USA.
The agreement was made in December 2015 at the COP21 and came into force in November 2016. It is important to note that the USA had also signed the agreement before the current president came into office. Widely known to be a climate skeptic, the president followed through with his electoral pledge and announced the formal withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement.
He had said in June 2017 that his country would withdraw from the agreement and was probably hampered from pulling out immediately because, by the rules of the agreement, no nation could do so before 2020. The reason given for the move in 2017 was the president’s declaration that it was his “solemn duty to protect America.”
To help us get a clearer picture of the framing of the withdrawal, here is what he said: “… in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord — (applause) — thank you, thank you — but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.”
The United States stands alone as a country that is sliding out of the global compact. At a point only a handful of countries held back from taking part in the Paris Agreement, but all eventually did. The countries included Syria, Nicaragua and Uzbekistan. Nicaragua had protested the agreement as having ambiguous provisions and not having sufficiently far reaching goals. That was a good protest.
So, the withdrawal of the United States is set for 2020. This means, however, that the country’s negotiators will be at COP25 billed to happen in December 2019 in Madrid, Spain. The significance of their presence is that, although they are set to step aside, they will nevertheless push the negotiations in the philosophical direction of their present government and that could seriously retard progress at the talks. If another party takes the USA presidency in 2020, it is likely that the country may return to the Paris Agreement. This supposition hinges on the fact that majority of citizens of the country believe that climate change is largely caused by human activities and there is a fairly serious focus on climate change in political discourse in the country.
If the current president gets reelected, then the world would either renegotiate the Paris Agreement in order to win the USA back into the fold or carry on with the agreement without the country. Having the USA off the Paris Agreement for a period of four years, or longer, could actually have salutary effect on global climate action as negotiations would be more unfettered by unreadiness to brook clear introduction of justice, higher ambition and reigning in of market environmentalism that have constantly hampered progress in those directions right from the climate summit held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997.
Climate summits have since Kyoto slid away from the foundational tenets that framed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), rendering them as largely lip service when mentioned. The Paris Agreement itself was constructed on the Copenhagen Accord drawn up in 2009 on the platform of voluntary emissions reduction contrary to the binding requirements of the Kyoto Protocol. This is why it is curious that the USA would pull out of an agreement that is based on nationally determined and wholly voluntary actions. Nations can literally do as they please under the current regime. So, what is the beef?
Still, four years without the USA at the COPs could ginger nations to take more ambitious climate actions and assist poorer nations to leapfrog over dirty energy and polluting sources. It could paradoxically be a period in which states and cities in the USA could ramp up climate action that could make up for, and surpass, whatever negative impacts federal inaction may brew. The pulling out of the USA from the Paris Agreement also offers a great opportunity for nations to go back to the drawing board and revert to an agreement with binding emissions reduction, fully taking into account historical and current responsibilities and capacities.
With current analyses of the nationally determined contributions showing that proposed voluntary actions will drive the world into catastrophic temperature rise, it is a time the world cannot afford to be distracted from determinedly taking on the existential challenge. This indeed is the time for nations to press forward with clearly ambitious actions. Clearly, no nation is an island when it comes to climate change impacts. No climate readiness is sufficient to shield any nation from the looming calamitous impacts that inaction will engender. This is no time to jump ship, it is time to stand together, strap on our life jackets, and fight with all our might to keep this lifeboat, the Blue Planet afloat.
By Nnimmo Bassey