Here’s what could happen if Trump pulls the US out of the Paris climate agreement – Business Insider
Diplomats who gathered earlier this month in Marrakech, Morocco
for COP22, the United Nations climate change summit, already
faced a difficult proposition: how to fine-tune and implement the
international agreement on climate change drafted last year in
The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United
States confounded that process even more, throwing into question
many aspects of the deal that previously seemed settled,
including who will lead the industrialized nations of the world
in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Kelly Sims Gallagher is a professor of energy
and environmental policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of
Law and Diplomacy. From June 2014 to September 2015, she served
in the Obama Administration as a senior policy advisor in the
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as senior
China advisor in the Special Envoy for Climate Change office at
the U.S. State Department.
She spoke with The GroundTruth Project’s Chris Bentley about
Trump’s impact on the international relations of the Paris
climate agreement, and what effect the U.S. election might have
on climate politics in Europe and China.
CB: How has the U.S. election changed China’s
position within the Paris Agreement?
KSG: Fundamentally, I think the Chinese are
expecting that the U.S.-China relationship on climate will be
very different. It’s still to be seen. I think President-Elect
Trump is a very practical person. He prides himself on being a
negotiator, and I think he will soon realize that the climate
issue during the Obama administration became one of the sole
bright spots in the U.S.-China relationship. And in any kind of
broader, bilateral relationship, you want to have some things
that are going well, because there’s inevitably going to be
tension on other things. Both the United States and China have
gotten to a very good place on climate, kind of co-leading on
this topic. I think the Chinese and many other people were
concerned that, if the United States pulls out of the Paris
agreement, that China would feel a lot of pressure to do the
same. One of the reasons why both joined was that they did so
together as the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases. I’m
very pleased that the Chinese government here in Marrakech has
made clear that they intend to stay the course no matter
what—even if President-Elect Trump pulls out of the Paris
I should say that, for the U.S. and China to come together in the
first place and create this leadership role, [it] was
unprecedented. It was almost an unholy coalition. In the past,
there was a very sharp division between industrialized and
developing countries. China was the de facto leader of the
developing country coalition, and the United States was the de
facto leader of the industrialized country coalition. So, for the
two of them to cut across this huge gulf was really
transformative, and part of what led to the achievement of the
I think China will be very uncomfortable now, staying in a
leadership position. They don’t want to be so far out in front of
all the other countries. They have a choice of either looking for
another partner that can co-lead with them from the
industrialized countries—Europe is an obvious choice, but I guess
the downside of Europe is that it’s not clear which leader in
Europe will take up the mantle and replace President Obama.
People like Angela Merkel and François Hollande, they have a lot
of other things that they’re focused on right now. And so it’s
just not clear that that’s going to happen. It’s possible that
China will retreat a little bit and take kind of a backseat
position in the international process.
What I think is so encouraging is that, in terms of its own
target for the Paris agreement, China is being extremely clear
that it intends to stay the course, which indeed is a very
ambitious target. There’s the pledge to peak emissions but also
to achieve a very high percentage of non-fossil energy in their
primary energy supply – there’s a carbon intensity target, an
energy intensity target. So, I think that they will not
CB: Besides dealing with the fallout of the U.S.
election, what are the biggest challenges for implementing the
Paris Agreement now?
KSG: There’s three ways to answer this. One
is what’s going to happen in terms of elaborating the rules and
procedures and modeling is the Paris Agreement. Then, there’s
this question of who’s going to actually achieve their own
domestic targets. And then, how do we go beyond Paris, what comes
next for the post-2025 period?
A lot of things were left unspecified when they did the
agreement. For example, the transparency framework—how will
countries report on what they’re doing so that everybody can
understand whether or not they’re achieving the targets that they
created for themselves? To me, that’s probably the most
important. There are financial procedures for how to move the
climate finance into the Green Climate Fund, and how the fund
will in turn disperse that money and for what purposes. The big
debate has been how much will go to adaptation versus how much
will go to mitigation projects. And there’s also been a lot of
discussion of something called the “loss and damage” mechanism,
which is how will countries be compensated for climate damages,
if at all. And, of course, this is a pretty contentious issue.
CB: The U.S. had been a stumbling block in that
discussion over “loss and damage” compensation. So, with the U.S.
playing less of a role, is it possible there will be more
movement on that front?
KSG: This is something that President-Elect
Trump needs to understand: if he pulls out of this agreement, we
lose a seat at the negotiating table. And, indeed, we will not be
able to shape these rules and procedures and the successor to the
Paris Agreement the way that we would be able to if we stay in. I
think he may find that there are significant diplomatic
consequences to pulling out. This is a top-level issue for many
other countries. So once he starts interacting with foreign
leaders and realizing that they’re raising this as one of their
top priorities, if he wants to be able to get something from
other leaders, he’s going to have to understand that one of the
things they want from us is to stay in this agreement.
CB: That’s interesting, because Trump ran on a
platform of reforming trade deals, and Nicolas Sarkozy and some
others have floated this idea of a carbon border tax on the U.S.
if it leaves the Paris Agreement. Is that something that could
actually happen? How would that play out, and do you think it
would actually have any effect? Trump purportedly doesn’t even
believe climate change exists, so how likely is he to consider it
in a negotiation on trade?
KSG: Well, a border tax adjustment is a
regularly used tool in international trade by countries who, if
they believe that another country is dumping products in their
country, they can impose a border tax adjustment to try and
equalize the price to make their domestic products competitive.
If President Trump pulls out of the Paris Agreement, and thus
does not bind himself to honor the U.S. target, it would be
perfectly reasonable for many other countries to impose border
tax adjustments on products coming in based on their carbon
content. I think it is quite likely that they would do so.
CB: Who would start that, the E.U.?
KSG: It’s possible that the E.U. would do
that. It’s possible that the Chinese would do that. I think the
countries that have the strongest targets [under the Paris
Agreement], that are putting a lot of effort into their targets,
are going to have industries that are saying, “Hey, this is not
fair. We’re having to compete against these Americans that aren’t
bound by the same target,” and so, to equalize or normalize the
treatment of the firms, they would have to do something like a
border tax adjustment.
CB: Could Trump take that issue to World Trade
Organization, or some other international trade organization?
KSG: He absolutely could. And it would be
arbitrated under the WTO, but for the most part, any kind of
border tax adjustment stays in place until that arbitration is
finished. So, U.S. firms could suffer for years under that
Also I think he will soon realize that one of the big engines of
growth in the U.S. economy has in fact been the clean energy
industry – whether it’s the natural gas industry, solar and wind
industries – and I think these firms want to take advantage of
the markets that are being created by the climate policies around
the world. So companies like G.E. could really suffer if they’re
facing these kinds of border tax adjustments or even just not
getting the stability and certainty of a stable policy
environment in the United States.
So, I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure from the clean
energy industry and all the jobs associated with those industries
in the United States to stay the course, because in fact this has
been a pretty big engine of growth.
CB: That may be so, but is there enough of that
pressure to counter pressure from the fossil-fuel based companies
in the U.S., who are probably better represented in Washington
than renewable energy? Don’t you have somebody in the White House
now who’s going to be pushing against this deal on every front?
KSG: It’s very hard to predict. I think
that, if President Trump is just pragmatic on this issue, he’s
going to understand it’s a much more mixed bag than some of
the ideologues that are advising him have suggested. He’ll
realize that the gas industry accounts for a huge number of U.S.
jobs, and so too do the renewable energy industries, and he may
not want to jeopardize these jobs. But I just don’t know how much
of this he realizes yet. Indeed, he has embraced some prominent
climate skeptics – Myron Ebell, most prominently.
I think the third risk for the international process on climate
change is really the next step. In the Paris Agreement, there is
a provision to have and a 2018 facilitative dialogue and then a
2023 global stocktaking exercise. Those are fancy names for
trying to determine how we take the next step beyond the Paris
agreement to go beyond stabilizing emissions, which is what the
Paris agreement actually achieved, to bending the curve down and
getting actual global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to
avoid a two-degree or even a one-point-five degrees Celsius
temperature change. So, while the Paris Agreement was a great
success, it really should still be understood as a first step in
actually achieving the goal of preventing dangerous climate
If President Trump is a one-term president, the U.S. is very
likely to achieve its 2020 pledge, because the Obama
administration set the country on a pretty strong course of
emissions reductions. But it would be very difficult for the U.S.
to achieve its 2025 Paris target without additional policy. And
if the United States can’t achieve its 2025 target, it’s hard to
imagine what their next step would be. So what happens in 2020 is
a big question.
CB: Does that mean other countries are waiting
to see what happens in the 2020 U.S. election, too?
KSG: A rather cynical perspective on this
is that President Trump could stay in the Paris Agreement, but
not do anything domestically to make sure that the U.S. honors
it—to essentially free-ride on all the work other countries are
doing and retain his seat at the table. The global will to act
allows him to keep a seat at the negotiating table, avoid things
like border tax adjustments that would affect U.S. firms, but it
would essentially be a free-riding position.
CB: On the transparency issue, what’s the talk
about how that’s going to be done? How are countries in the Paris
Agreement supposed to know the rest of the world is living up to
KSG: It’s very unclear how we are actually going
to achieve this transparency mechanism. You have to understand
that there’s huge variations in the capacities of different
countries. The ability of the United States to track in a
detailed way different sectors of its economy is quite refined.
Compare that to a country like Zimbabwe that has a much smaller
bureaucracy, and much weaker data-collection capabilities. It’s
complicated, expensive – it requires a lot of staff and a lot of
technical expertise. So ,finding a one-size-fits-all mechanism is
going to be really quite challenging. It seems like they’re going
to launch a process in 2017 to hear from all parties and hold
several workshops, engage some technical experts and then try to
achieve an agreement at the next Conference of the Parties in
I personally would try to create a best-practice model and then
encourage countries to do the best they can to achieve those best
practices. Of course, there’s other support that can be provided
to these countries—sending international experts to do this kind
of work [and] providing the technical assistance that they need.