As the Paris Era Begins, the United States Decides Between Influence and Irrelevance
As the United States held its turbulent presidential election, world leaders convened in Marrakech, Morocco, for the first U.N. climate summit since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015. Uncertainty about whether the United States will remain in the agreement emerged as a dominant theme of the conference. At the same time, it became clear that other countries will continue to implement this global pact to curb greenhouse gas pollution regardless of U.S. participation.
The Paris Agreement represented a shift in the geopolitics of climate change. Old blocs of countries are falling away—and new coalitions are emerging—as developed countries and emerging economies alike seek to become leaders in the clean energy movement. To date, the United States has played a central role in the new landscape of global climate action. If it chooses to abdicate its leadership, it will invite international isolation, strengthen the voices of other major powers, and usher in an era of domestic decline.
New leadership in the global shift to clean energy
The umbrella treaty to the Paris Agreement—the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—created two categories of countries according to their level of development in 1992. These categories have served as a means to assign obligations: The Kyoto Protocol, for example, required only developed countries—not the major emerging economies—to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Because of this, the United States ultimately declined to join the protocol.
But the negotiations to create the Paris Agreement brought a reconfiguration of alliances. In November 2014, China and the United States announced their national climate goals in a joint statement, indicating that the two largest greenhouse gas emitters—notorious antagonists in the climate negotiations—would come together to lead the global climate effort. This precipitated a flood of climate commitments: 190 countries have now submitted goals to reduce emissions.
This new model—in which all countries act to confront the global climate threat according to their national capacities—is evident not only in emissions reduction targets but also in international finance commitments. China, for example, committed more than $3 billion in climate finance through the South-South Cooperation Fund on Climate Change. Both developed and emerging economies—including Mexico, Colombia, and Peru—made pledges to the Green Climate Fund to support low-carbon and climate-resilient growth in developing countries.
During the Paris summit itself, more than 100 countries from across the development spectrum—including the Marshall Islands, the United States, Brazil, the countries of the European Union, Mexico, and the members of the Least Developed Countries bloc—formed a new alliance known as the High-Ambition Coalition as a means to help secure a strong pact.
The alliance was successful: The Paris Agreement is well positioned to be an effective tool for curbing greenhouse gas pollution. It calls on all countries to return with increasingly ambitious short-term goals every five years; it invites countries to formulate strategies for emissions reductions over the long term; and it establishes global stocktaking sessions every five years to review collective progress. Importantly, the agreement also calls for the creation of a transparency system to facilitate clarity on national progress.
The uncertain status of the United States
It is difficult to overstate the influence of the United States in shaping the Paris Agreement and in ensuring global participation and ambition. But President-elect Donald Trump has expressed opposition to the agreement, leading to speculation that the country will withdraw. The position and relevance of the United States in the reconfigured geopolitics of climate change is therefore uncertain.
If the United States were to withdraw, it would mean ceding any influence and credibility in the movement to curb greenhouse gas pollution—a movement that has become truly global—and strengthening the roles of other powers, including China, India, and the European Union. More than 100 countries responsible for more than 75 percent of emissions have now officially joined the Paris Agreement within just a year of its finalization, and no country to date has expressed a desire to reverse course if the United States backs out.
In fact, all 196 countries represented at the Marrakech summit issued a joint declaration supporting the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Many countries—including emerging economies such as Brazil, Mexico, China, and even Saudi Arabia—separately affirmed their dedication to the pact. On the last day of the summit, a coalition of 47 developing countries that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change pledged to work toward 100 percent renewable energy production. Countries see that their futures lie with clean energy: Global investment in renewables reached a record $286 billion in 2015, with developing countries accounting for more than half of this amount.
Renouncing membership in the Paris Agreement also would mean giving up any role in ensuring the creation of a well-functioning transparency system and in participating in the process that will hold all countries accountable for the greenhouse gas pollution imposed on U.S. and global populations. The president-elect may want to consider that China is currently the largest emitter and India is the third largest.
Of course, U.S. withdrawal from the climate effort would have consequences beyond a precipitous drop in standing within the international community and among important U.S. allies on trade and security. There would be destructive domestic effects as well.
The existence of climate change—and the damage it imposes both globally and in the United States—are long settled. In 2016, which is set to be the hottest year on record, there have been 12 severe weather and climate-related events in the United States, each with losses of more than $1 billion.
Because of the manifest risks of climate change, the U.S. transition to clean energy is well underway. Greenhouse gas pollution declined 6 percent—and the economy grew 28 percent—between 2000 and 2014. Renewable energy costs are falling. The U.S. solar industry alone employs approximately 300,000 people, and its workforce has increased 20 percent each year for three consecutive years.
Obstructing the clean energy transition would obstruct U.S. prosperity. High-emission pathways are also high cost due to the destructive effects of climate change, which include not only storms, wildfires, and sea-level rise but also harms to human health and agriculture.
Companies are well aware that economic success depends on climate action: Hundreds of businesses and investors have now encouraged the United States to remain in the Paris Agreement. Subnational governments are increasingly aware of this as well: 18 U.S. cities and states to date have signed a pact to dramatically decarbonize their economies by midcentury.
It is now up to the incoming administration to choose economic and diplomatic strength—or economic and diplomatic decay.
Gwynne Taraska is the Associate Director of Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress and was in Marrakech for the 2016 climate summit. Howard Marano is a Research Assistant for Energy Policy at the Center.
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Director, International Climate Policy