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OOSKAnews Voices: Watering Down the Paris Agreement: Global Climate Policy and Revenge of the Cities

CORVALLIS OR, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

In this article , John H. Matthews, co-founder and secretariat coordinator for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank, reflects on the implications of the USA's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.
Matthews’ work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. John has worked globally on these issues since 2007 and has authored many publications on adaptive management for water infrastructure and ecosystems. He has a PhD in ecology from the University of Texas and is based in the United States.


My first global UN climate conference was in Copenhagen in 2009 (UNFCCC COP15). The highs and lows of that meeting were intense. Most people went into Copenhagen feeling like a global agreement on greenhouse gas reduction was close. I left fit only for sleep and little airplane bottles of liquor. The introduction to international climate policy was unhappy. Copenhagen was a time ill-spent.Other COPs were fun (Cancun) or made significant progress (Lima). But the best by far was Paris in 2015. The French played an enormous role in shepherding the agreement forward, but many other groups were important too. Not least among them was the US, a rare point of national pride I allowed myself over the past decade. The Paris Accord was what we thought we had been so close to in Copenhagen. Paris brought money for adaptation and a strong mandate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a promising structure for better returns in the future.

A few weeks ago, however, current US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would leave the Paris Accord, which had been signed by his predecessor Barack Obama. That day, I experienced all of the horror of Copenhagen but with added shame. How did my country flip so fast and so hard?

We Always Had Paris — for Two Years

The Paris Accord was some 25 years in the making — the first vital and most effective piece of global policy to slow the rate of climate change. The US faces a four-year process of leaving the agreement (about the time of the next US presidential election). The US is also the first (and so far only) country out of over 190 signatories to invoke an escape clause. Trump’s decision does not doom the agreement. Arguably, other signatories have rallied around the Paris Accord, reaffirming support and commitments.

In the time since Trump’s announcement, I’ve tried to reflect on the importance of his choice: Does the US departure matter for global climate mitigation or adaptation efforts? My work is oriented around water and climate change, and mostly I want the UNFCCC to help make my work easier (or at least not get in my way). I see two direct impacts from the US decision to leave the UNFCCC:

  1. The loss of a major carbon contributor’s support. The US is currently the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China but clearly the largest total national emitter of greenhouse gases in total since the mid-nineteenth century. The US is therefore more “responsible” than other countries for climate impacts that have appeared to date as well as for the next several decades. The relative importance of the US to climate “guilt” is clearly declining as new large emitters appear — such as India and China — but so far the US is the only nation to signal an intent to leave the Paris Accord.
  2. A potential shortfall with the Green Climate Fund. The US immediately announced we would contribute no more money to the Green Climate Fund. In the final days of his presidency, anticipating Trump, President Obama accelerated the US contribution to the GCF, which is designed to support and enable effective mitigation and adaptation projects. The US was the largest pledger to the GCF (3 billion USD), and the amount the US delivered has now stopped at 1 billion USD. Apparently no more is coming. On a per capita basis, the US is not a particularly impressive contributor (hello, Japan, Germany, UK, France, and Scandinavia!). But overall volume counts, and the loss of funds hurts at the project level, especially in the developing world.

Revenge of the Cities

The real question, however, is if US actions are the start of an erosion of support for the Paris Accord or, alternatively, the community of nations rallies round and doubles down.

The impact of Trump’s decision on GHG emissions may be diffused, however, even in the US. The Paris Accord includes national commitments to climate mitigation and (in many cases) climate adaptation as well. But the entities that negotiated these national goals — usually foreign ministries, with inputs from other departments — are not capable of implementation. In fact, these national commitments (expressed as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) rarely talk about specific projects. Like many countries, the national US withdrawal may not have an enormous impact simply because our national government is not that involved in directly implementing many local and regional projects.

Trump’s biggest role within the US is likely to come from no longer regulating carbon emissions in energy utilities such as coal-fired power plants. The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) was indeed preparing to play a significant role here beginning with the Obama administration, but the transition from coal to other energy sources, especially natural gas, was already well underway — and driven by market (not policy) forces around the cheaper price of natural gas relative to coal here. Don’t expect a lot of new coal mines. Or more coal consumption for that matter. The US was well ahead on its carbon commitment schedule and these gains will not be easy to undo.

More importantly, within the US’s hierarchies of governance, states and cities play a more important role around energy management. Especially for cities, there is a more widespread consensus of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the rate of climate change. These decision makers are close to the impacts. As a result, the US may continue to make substantial progress against national climate goals. Organizations such as C40, Michael Bloomberg (former mayor of New York) and his foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and ICLEI have all expressed strong commitments for shifting to cleaner sources of energy and enabling effective adaptation. US cities will not be giving to the Green Climate Fund, but they definitely will go far to make up the potential gap in carbon emissions within the US. Over 300 US mayors have promised to implement the Paris Accord at their level. At a recent cities conference here, former US President Bill Clinton spoke passionately about the supremacy of science over politics. My own sense is that cities — which are a stronghold of the opposition party in the US — have found a major rallying point for their constituents. Indeed, a majority of the US electorate disagrees with the decision.

Something similar has also emerged at global level with other countries. China appears to be relishing the role of riding a white horse in the international policy rodeo, which must invoke a lot of ire in the Trump administration. But the stature of the US in many aspects of policy appear to have declined as well as a result of this decision, and I suspect many countries are learning from the US’s bad example. Leave the Paris Accord? There be dragons! Perhaps Trump has inoculated the rest of the world with his poor global citizenship. And perhaps the ultimate result will be — fingers crossed — the welcome return of the US to the Paris Accord in a few years.

The next big signpost will be in November: the Bonn COP, led by Fiji with strong support from Germany and Morocco. My expectation is that we will see deep affirmations for the Paris Accord, and great silence from the US.