The whole world faced an upheaval when President Donald Trump, in his usual flamboyant manner, dictated that the United States of America was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The most ambitious agreement that had been agreed to yet was to be discarded. Those in the business of climate change, or with long memories, recalled the withdrawal of Canada from the Kyoto Protocol and the mass exodus that soon followed. It took two decades after that to find an agreement that a large part of the world could agree on.

Soon after President Trump’s declaration followed both mass condemnation as well as articles discussing the way forward without USA. Speculation of which country would fill the gap left by the USA was rampant. But what exactly is the Paris Agreement, and what does the USA’s withdrawal mean?

Understanding Climate Change: Why the Paris Agreement is Inadequate but Necessary?
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Climate scientists will tell you that the Paris Agreement was, at best, a necessary evil. It is wholly inadequate as a tool to fight climate change. Article 2 of the Agreement defines its aim as limiting global temperature rise to below 2°C above pre-industrial temperature level, and making attempts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

Pre-industrial temperature levels are usually taken as the global temperature in the period 1850-1900. This is not truly pre-industrial (James Watt’s steam engine, for instance, was in use nearly a century before) but it is the first period when an adequate temperature measurement device was existent.

To put the Paris Agreement’s ambitions in perspective: according to the analysis by the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies (and other reliable institutes)-- in 2010 the global temperature rise was already 0.8°C, double the rise recorded in 1981. The climate will face a tipping point, at 1.6°C above pre-industrial levels we will not face just double the issues that we faced in 2010 as it is not a linear relationship. 1.5°C and 2°C rises represent two tipping points—at these points, the global climate will be irreversibly and drastically changed.

The Paris Agreement neither calls for strict measures to reduce emissions to acceptable levels, instead allowing for Nationally Determined Contributions from each country; nor is the Agreement legally binding even for those commitments that countries agree to. This is understandable, because sovereignty of each country is a serious boundary that cannot be crossed, nevertheless it leaves us with a huge gap between what is necessary and what is happening.

Nevertheless, it is an Agreement made in good faith by 175 Parties. The Nationally Determined Contributions are conservative and insufficient but may be expected to be reached, for precisely these reasons, and the Agreement is sufficiently forward looking.

The Paris Agreement without the USA

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Article 28 of the Paris Agreement states the conditions for leaving the Agreement. Three years after signing the Agreement (12th April, 2016 for the USA and many others) a Party can give written notification of withdrawal to the Depository, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. A year from the date of receipt of the Agreement, the withdrawal will take place. 

The timeline is clear: no official withdrawal is possible before (at a very minimum) 12th April, 2020. On the other hand, there is every chance that USA will send representatives designed to be combative and make the proceedings even more complex than they usually are.

Along with the withdrawal, President Trump also reneged on USA’s commitment to the Green Climate Fund. This is not unheard of, indeed climate funding has been a sticking point between developing and developed country groups nearly every year.

The effects of the withdrawal will be felt on three different axes:
  • The second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is withdrawing from the Agreement meant to reduce and mitigate climate change
  • The largest economy in the world is reneging on promised funds for climate adaptation
  • A global agreement is proceeding without the approval of a leading world power.
Despite calls for China, or the EU to take a leadership role moving forward, the ill-effects of this hasty decision will be felt for a long time. The developing world urgently needs funds and free access to technological know-how in order to give their citizens even a basic good life without the free access to fossil fuels that developed countries formerly had (India, for instance, has several states with only 50% of rural households having access to electricity.)

The Good News
While it would be absurd in the present moment and in the foreseeable future to rely on the White House to do the right thing, the rest of the world is not utterly helpless. There are Americans rebelling against the guidelines from up high, and unlike the Kyoto Protocol, it appears that USA stands alone as a detractor from the Paris Agreement.

While China and the EU have both been touted as possible leaders in the fight ahead, the true challenge ahead is somewhat different—finding a partnership between many countries with unequal economic and developmental circumstances which will be affected wildly differently by the impacts of climate change.

Climate change cannot be fought by any one individual, and the fight cannot be brought to a standstill by any one person either, even if he happens to be the President of the United States of America.

(This article has been written by Mohini Ganguly who is working as a Research Associate in CUTS International. She holds a Masters in Climate Change and 
Sustainability Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai)