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Will US withdrawal from Paris climate deal make a difference?

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U.S. President Trump refers to temperature change as he announces decision to withdraw from Paris Climate Agreement at White House in Washington U.S., June 1, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Global headlines were dominated on Friday by American President Donald Trump's move to pull the US out of the landmark Paris climate agreement. But analysts say that his decision may have a smaller impact on global climate policy than the initial press coverage suggested.


Trump’s announcement was taken as a serious blow by environmentalists and all those who backed the multilateral Paris climate deal, signed by nearly 200 countries in 2015.

But the time it would take for his announcement to translate into an official withdrawal is quite lengthy. Four years, to be exact.

“Three years after ratification, a government can submit a letter to withdraw,” explains Rob Bailey, research director of the Energy, Environment and Resources Department at UK-based think tank Chatham House. “Then one year after that letter is submitted, withdrawal can occur.”

That means that 2020 is the earliest the US could officially pull out of the deal. A critical year, Bailey notes, as “it’s when another presidential election is due".

“So if Trump turns out to be a one-term president, it’s not inconceivable that the next administration could actually put a halt to proceedings and America could remain in Paris after all.”

Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Centre in Washington, DC, similarly notes that the withdrawal process will take Trump’s “whole tenure as president in the first term”.

Business leaders at odds with Trump

Trump said he withdrew from the agreement because it was bad for the American economy, notably for the oil, gas and coal industries.

But certain business leaders in those very industries have supported the deal, including major energy companies such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Shell.

"There is a transition underway now towards low carbon technologies and away from fossil fuel-based energy systems,” explains Bailey.

This transition, Bailey tells RFI, “has a momentum of its own, and it’s happening based on precipitous declines in cost for low carbon technologies.

“Look at a state like Texas for example. It’s a Republican state, it’s a major oil and gas producer, and yet it’s US’ biggest generator of wind power and it’s rising rapidly up the solar tables as well. And that’s just because the economics make sense. It’s windy in Texas and the sun shines a lot, so they’re investing in renewable technologies.”

The shift towards low carbon systems is a trend, says Bailey, which means that “the cost of renewable technologies are going to continue to fall relative to hydrocarbons.”

US states and cities step up to the plate

While Trump’s decision will affect foreign relations and international dynamics regarding global climate policy, it won’t directly impact US domestic policy. And it won’t halt local and state policies either, says Bailey.

“A huge amount of action on climate change in the US actually occurs at the sub-national level, through state policies and regulations," he observes.

"There’s no reason to suppose that the US pulling out of the Paris agreement will affect any of that at all.”

Cities and states have another major reason to stick with renewable energy investment: jobs.

“There are more clean energy jobs now in the US than there are jobs that rely on traditional fossil fuel sources of energy,” explains Arroyo.

This trend "has been enabled by policies but that it’s also happening because of business interest and markets and public demand,” she says.

Trump’s decision may even inspire US states to take action more quickly, says Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC.

"The interesting thing is that this may provoke quite creative and forceful responses from states and cities in the US,” Muro tells RFI, adding that such momentum “may unleash forceful progress".

“It's not a silver lining but it may be an off-setting gain from this," he adds.

Blow to foreign relations

As analysts have pointed out, Trump’s announcement won’t change the course of domestic and global economic trends. Nor will it necessarily affect US renewable energy production, which is on the rise.

The real impact of Trump’s decision will be felt most strongly in the arena of foreign relations.

“The most grievous impact here is the abdication of global leadership, not just on the environment but on international cooperation to solve problems in the world,” says Muro.

“So that is the great tragedy here and that is what is going to take many years to hopefully repair."

Trump's decision has also “created a leadership vacuum which will probably be filled by other countries”, says Bailey, who notes that “China seems to be opportunistically stepping up, launching a new partnership on climate change with the EU on Friday.”

The result of the US relinquishing its leadership role on the global stage?

Politically, “a loss of US soft power”, according to Bailey. Economically, a “damaging of long-term US competitiveness".

"The future is low-carbon technologies," he predicts. "The US economy is heavily innovation-based. Long-term competitiveness is going to be all about winning the intellectual property for these new technologies. So without a federal government supporting clean technology, that’s going to be a drag on US innovation."

Bailey concludes that “it’s America that’s going to lose out more than the rest of the world.”