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Implications of Leaving Paris More Intricate Than You Think

marc-levyCheck here for a comprehensive roundup of reactions from all over the Earth Institute on Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement. 


The implications are more intricate than what people have been fixating on so far.

1) There will undoubtedly be a countervailing increase in effort to reduce emissions on the part of Europe. When George W. Bush announced that he was not going to submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification in 2001, it had the effect of dramatically speeding up the ratification process in other countries. In fact, his decision plausibly helped guarantee Kyoto’s entry into force.

The Paris Agreement is designed to encourage effective adjustments to this kind of development. All parties have committed to do all they can to keep climate within safe limits, and there are procedures to review what that takes and whether the accumulated commitments are adequate. With the U.S. signalling a retreat from the climate cause, the Paris mechanisms will induce many countries to dig deeper.

2) Even before Trump, the trajectory of US emissions was driven much more by market conditions and local/regional politics than it was by what happened in Washington. What happens in Washington matters, but the bottom-line impact of the Trump-Obama shift, with respect to US emissions, is probably less than people are fearing.

In that light, we can expect increased enthusiasm for subnational climate agreements, e.g. involving cities. If the federal government nails shut its climate window, other countries will pursue other venues for engaging the U.S., and agreements with individual cities, which have already proven useful, will become all the more attractive.

3) Proponents of geo-engineering will have a much easier time making their case now.  Geo-engineering (e.g. reflective aerosols in the stratosphere) is not very popular right now — people prefer to reduce emissions. But we have continued talking about geo-engineering, largely under the premise that it may turn out that emission reductions may end up being insufficient. Trump’s move strengthen’s the argument that reductions are not sufficient.

4) Nuclear power is also more attractive to many countries.  Many countries have already included expansion of nuclear power in their DNCs. But enthusiasm is muted, and some countries have chosen not to use them or even phase them out.  All the nuclear plans that were just below the threshold of acceptability have now become acceptable.

5) People worry about the impact on research and development in the US, but the long-term effects are likely not so severe, even if the short-term effects will be very bad. During the battles over whether to phase out CFCs to protect the ozone layer, the French government opposed all such action and French companies refrained from investing in the search or substitutes. When the phase-out happened anyway, the French companies were not disadvantaged appreciably. They simply purchased access to the technology that other companies had developed (in one case buying a whole US company). It would be better if we deepened investment in climate-related R&D, but a hiatus need not be catastrophic.

6) So on balance I think we have to look at this as part of a multi-player, multi-step strategic game. Trump has made a move that looks overwhelmingly bad. But how bad it becomes will depend on how everyone else reacts to it. Many of the reactions will offset the negative impacts. 

Most of the world wants to reduce emissions and control climate change. Trump has not changed  that fact. And that fact will continue to drive innovation and progress.  We will see it manifest in some new ways, e.g. more treaties with cities, more exploration of geo-engineering and nuclear, and more roundabout pathways to relevant technology, but the incentives to solve this problem have not diminished in the slightest, and that’s what will drive progress.

Marc Levy is deputy director of CIESIN.

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