Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

What Will U.S. Withdrawal From Paris Accord Mean For Climate Change?

Posted by Jon Elliott on Tue, Jun 20, 2017

On June 1, President Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change, and then seek to “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.” Most of the strong reactions I’ve seen – pro and con – express only superficial approaches to the implications of the decision. In this note I’ll dig a little deeper, and propose two different less-superficial ways to watch these implications play out.

Background: What does the Paris Accord Do, Anyway?

The Accord creates a framework for countries (and multi-national and sub-national entities) to announce voluntary non-binding– that is, not enforceable – “commitments” to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (I wrote about it in more detail here). This voluntary system supersedes the Kyoto Protocol, under which developed countries offered binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions, and developing countries offered non-binding commitments. Both Paris and Kyoto represent efforts to implement GHG reporting and reduction goals under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Framework Convention).

President Obama offered a U.S. commitment to cut net national GHG emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. During his administration, the U.S. offered its first “nationally determined contribution (NDC)” report, emphasizing regulatory approaches under Clean Air Act (CAA), Energy Policy Act, and Energy Independence and Security Act. These regulatory actions included continued implementation of past actions – primarily CAA emission controls on stationary and mobile sources, and energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances – and future actions expanding these controls. The NDC report did not cover non-federal regulations or market-driven changes, such as the accelerating switch from coal to natural gas and renewables.

Other national commitments include China’s targets to peak CO2 emissions no later than 2030, and to increase the non-fossil fuel share of all energy to around 20 percent by 2030. The collective goal of international efforts under the Accord is to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees C." The consensus is that the present first round of pledges would not achieve this goal, but the hope is that expanding future pledges may do so.

What are President Trump’s Rationales for Withdrawal?

President Trump has long expressed skepticism about the reality and impacts of climate change, and blasted the Paris Accord as an example of international engagements that are “unfair” to the U.S. He cited a (controversial) study by the consulting firm National Economic Research Associates predicting domestic job losses and other economic harm from efforts to reach Paris Accord goals, and excoriated the fact that China’s deferral of peak CO2 emissions would provide that country with economic advantages and offset the U.S. sacrifices. He emphasized that exploitation of domestic energy reserves offers the U.S. significant economic benefits, and downplayed associated environmental costs.

How does the United States Withdraw?

Article 28 of the Paris Accord allows a party to withdraw, beginning at least 3 years after the Accord enters force respecting that party – which occurred on November 4, 2016, four days before President Trump was elected. A party notifies the United Nations of its intent to withdraw, which becomes effective no less than one year later. Assuming notice is filed effective November 4, 2019, withdrawal would be effective November 4, 2020 –the day after the 2020 U.S. national election.

President Trump expressed willingness to negotiate reentry into the Paris Accord on terms more favorable to the U.S., but offered no specifics.

What are the “Top-Down” International Responses?

Because the U.S. withdrawal cannot occur for at least four years, the immediate international effects are largely political, as other countries and non-national players react to President Trump’s announcement. One might imagine an unravelling of the Accord, if other countries reacted to withdrawal of U.S. commitments by withdrawing or reducing their own commitments – which would mirror President Trump’s assertion of unequal economic costs and benefits.

Instead, first reactions around the globe have defiantly reaffirmed the Accord’s goals and process. These reactions are not limited to national signatories to the Accord. In addition, sub-national governments are stepping forward to promise their own actions – California has been a prime example (more below). Nongovernmental organizations, including nonprofits and profit-seeking enterprises also continue to make organizational pledges. Even remembering that all Paris Accord pledges are voluntary non-binding commitments, new pledges offer the likelihood of additional reductions.

What are “Bottoms-Up” Responses in the United States?

President Obama built the U.S. pledge from assumptions about the GHG emission reductions expected from his many air and energy policies. President Trump and his administration have begun work to dismantle those policies and replace them with policies involving fewer regulatory restrictions and more fossil fuels (particularly coal). For example, he issued an executive order rescinding or rolling back a number of his predecessor’s climate change-affecting executive orders (I wrote about it here), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has embarked on a suite of “back-to-basics” initiatives to retool the agency’s regulatory and technical information programs (I wrote about it here). These policy and regulatory changes make it less likely that the U.S. will achieve the reductions President Obama promised … but do not make it impossible.

Many states are reaffirming and expanding their GHG reduction policies. California has been a global leader for at least the past 15 years, and since the Paris Accord was signed has expanded its state-wide GHG reduction goals to include 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, has embarked on additional programs to reduce emissions of “short-lived climate pollutants,” has reaffirmed state requirements to reduce vehicle fleet emissions through 2025, and is expanding state subsidies for installation of non-fossil renewable energy systems. In May 2017 the Governor of Virginia ordered his environmental officials to prepare rules limiting CO2 emissions from power plants. In June, Hawaii passed legislation committing the state to set goals aligned with the Paris Accord.

Businesses are also expanding their efforts. For example, in April Wal-mart pledged to reduce total emissions by one billion tons of CO2-equivalent through 2030 (much of that reduction would actually be accomplished by its suppliers). Public company shareholders are also stepping up; for example, in May investors holding 62.3% of ExxonMobil shares called on that company to reveal the impact of climate change policy on the company’s operations.

Changing economics reinforce these trends, despite federal policies. Throughout the U.S., electricity can be generated more cheaply from natural gas than from coal, and in many areas solar and/or wind power are cheaper than gas. In June, these factors prompted Kansas City Power & Light to announce plans to retire 6 aging coal-fired electricity units (900 MW total capacity) by 2019, expecting to increase reliance on wind and other sustainable energy sources.

In Conclusion, For Now

It’s not clear that these counter-trends will offset the GHG emission reductions foregone by President Trump’s policies, but climate change management efforts will certainly continue.

Self-Assessment Checklist

Has the organization identified activities that cause GHG emissions?

Does the organization compile this information:

  • For internal use in managing our activities?

  • For internal use in setting goals?

  • For external publication and/or reporting to specific third parties (such as customers or shareholders) and/or the general public?

Has the organization developed approaches to reducing its GHG emissions?

  • In response to governmental requirements?

  • In response to requests or requirements from customers?

  • In order to enhance its reputation among stakeholders and/or with the public?

Where Do I Go For More Information?

Information available via the Internet includes:

Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements. These include:

Like What You've Read? Subscribe to Our Blog Now

About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 13 existing products, including Environmental Compliance: A Simplified National Guide and The Complete Guide to Environmental Law.

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at: [email protected]

photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center Glacier Shape Influences Susceptibility to Melting via photopin (license)

Tags: Environmental risks, Environmental, EPA, climate change