President Donald Trump’s announcement Thursday that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was both confused and misguided, and the justifications he provided were — at best — misleading, and for the most part, simply false.
Let’s start with a few numbers. Trump blasted the accord because he said it would allow China to keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere but hamstring the American economy by forcing strict controls on our output. Today, China is the biggest greenhouse gas contributor, accounting for 30 percent of global emissions, while the United States emits roughly 14 percent. (The European Union follows closely behind at 10 percent.) However, when you look at cumulative emissions since 1850, America is responsible for 29 percent of the total while China accounts for eight percent.
With Trump’s announcement, the U.S. will join Syria and Nicaragua as the only United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) countries not part of the Paris Agreement. That means we cannot pressure other countries, such as the large emerging economies, to do more. Worse yet, the announced departure may encourage some countries to do less than they had anticipated. In the worst possible scenario, the U.S. announcement could eventually even lead to the broad Paris coalition unraveling.
The president’s comments were both confused and confusing. He said that the U.S. was open to rejoining, and he would renegotiate a more “fair” agreement. He said that the country “will withdraw from the Paris climate accord but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an — really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States … We’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great.”
What does that mean? According the Paris Agreement’s rules, there is a required three-year delay from November 2016 (when the agreement came into force) before any country can even begin the process of withdrawing, and then there is another year delay before that process is complete. So, the president, in effect, actually announced the government’s intention to begin the process of withdrawing about two and half years from now. In the meantime, apparently, the U.S. will try to negotiate a better deal, though Germany, Italy, and France have already dismissed this idea.
Thus, the U.S. will remain a party to the agreement for the time being and the administration will submit a revised nationally determined contribution (NDC). (We may be looking at a goal of reducing emissions by about 16 percent below their 2005 level by 2025 instead of the Obama era NDC of 26 percent to 28 percent, given the broad rollback of the former president’s climate regulations that Trump has initiated.) Only the country-specific NDC can be thought of as affecting “fairness” of the U.S. role under the Paris Agreement, because the agreement itself does not specify any targets or actions by individual countries.
Having said this, keep in mind that the structure of the Paris Agreement satisfied many of the U.S.’s requirements, going back to the Byrd-Hagel Resolution of 1997, in which the U.S. Senate in a 95-0 vote said that it would not ratify an international climate agreement that did not include the large emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Korea). The Paris Agreement does just that. Countries accounting for 97 percent of global emissions have signed up for NDCs, which should be considered a success story, given that the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol only saw countries accounting for 14 percent of global emissions participate.
Furthermore, in addition to being a truly global pact, the Paris Agreement acquiesced to U.S. requests that all countries retain the right to determine their own targets and their own paths of action (through their respective NDCs). And, negotiators granted a third American demand by providing for transparency around how countries report their emissions and demonstrate progress toward their respective targets.
The Paris Agreement was the answer to U.S. prayers going back at least 20 years and was eminently “fair” to the United States. What, then, can renegotiation produce that would make this president happy? Perhaps renaming precisely the same agreement the “Mar-a-Lago Accord” or simply the “Trump Agreement.”
Trump’s decision is a remarkable rebuke to heads of state around the world, as well as corporate leaders in the United States, and some key senior officials within his own administration. The idea, as the president mentioned, is to save jobs, but removing ourselves from this hard-won climate agreement will have no meaningful impact on employment. Those much talked about coal jobs are not coming back. The losses that have taken place over decades are due to a number of factors that have little to do with environmental regulation: increased productivity through technological change and, more recently, market competition from low-priced natural gas for electricity generation.
The potential damages to U.S. international relations are immense, but should we be surprised? After all, this is the same president who withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership shortly after inauguration, thereby handing over to China economic leadership in Asia. And, this is the same president who, just last month, dismissed and diminished NATO and our key European allies, thereby granting Russian President Vladimir Putin his greatest wish.
So, the announcement by President Trump that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was in many ways simply dishonest. Sadly, that makes it fully consistent with much of the president’s behavior during the campaign and since he has assumed office.
Robert Stavins is the Albert Pratt professor of business and government at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the former chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Economics Advisory Board and was a faculty presenter at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative's Climate Change Deep Dive.