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Trump rolling back environmental protection

Why is the Paris climate accord significant, and does it matter that President Trump is intent on pulling the US out of the agreement?

At the Paris climate conference  in December 2015, 195 countries adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal.  For that reason alone it is a significant step - the world was doing what it should, coming together to tackle man-made climate change.  It was a beacon of hope.



Now, the rest of the world looks on in dismay as Trump sets his own course based on the assumption that climate change is a 'hoax' cooked up by America's rivals.  Whilst other countries remain determined to follow through on the agreement,  does it really have legs without the USA?

A global action plan

The accord is significant, but only as a start. It sets clear targets. The agreement sets out the first 'global action plan' to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C.  With the accord, the countries agreed: 
  • a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels;
  • to aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change;
  • on the need for global emissions to peak as soon as possible, recognising that this will take longer for developing countries;
  • to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available science.
But the plan is but an outline of what needs to be done.  It needs constant appraisal and updating, and for that it needs active engagement, political will and commitment. Currently, it is unlikely that the targets will be achieved.  Nevertheless, the Paris accord offers hope of action, and much needs to be done.

Climate Action Plans

In a sense, there isn't yet a global plan.  What we have at the moment are national plans and national commitments pulled together in the accord.

For the accord, countries submitted comprehensive national climate action plans.  These are not sufficient as they stand if the aim is to  keep global warming below the critical 2°C.  

For the accord to work,  the signatories agreed to revise the plans every five years to make them more robust, and with more 'ambitious' targets.   Yet, this revision process is only set to start in 2023.   On the one hand, at least nations are focused on setting plans for action on climate change. On the down side, many countries are being distracted politically with other issues.  Not the least of these is the distraction in Europe of Britain leaving the union.

It remains to be seen whether the UK will be prepared to abandon elements of its action plan on climate change in its urgent quest for post-Brexit trade deals.   A deal with Trump would certainly beg questions on environmental costs.

Does Trump matter?

So does Trump's decision to pull out matter?  The answer to that question depends on how the United States behaves in relation to emissions targets, and a lot of that depends on trade.

Entering a global trade war might deflect both the US and China from their commitments on climate change.  But it might also bring about a rethink of the way global trade works, and how it drives climate pollution.  For the latter, I am not holding my breath.  The world is too distracted and politically unstable.

In the 'developed' world, populists are holding sway with concern about migration and border controls.  They don't appear to be in any mood for cooperation on one of the major causes of migration - climate change.  Establishment politicians like Merkel are on the run.

Rolling-back from environmental protection

The Trump administration has been steadily dismantling environmental legislation.  That is set to continue despite the resignation of his head of the environmental protection agency.  Not the least is Trump's rolling back on  Obama's Clean Power Act.   As with other Obama initiatives on the environment, Trump dismisses them as 'stupid', and is intent on sweeping them away.

Trump seems to dislike almost anything from the Obama administration, but he is particular averse to anything that protects the environment.  So Trump matters.

The Clean Power Act was to have required states to produce comprehensive plans to reduce emissions from energy generation.   Trump isn't simply withdrawing the US from the Paris accord, he is actively moving in the opposite direction.   One of the biggest polluters, the USA,  is set now to increase polluting rather than rolling it back.  Also, coal output and coal burning is set to increase with removal of controls preventing new coal extraction from Federal land.

The list is long, with some 52 environment initiatives being reversed or rolled back.  So, the answer is that Trump matters.  The earliest date for the USA to pull out under the agreement would be November 4 2020.  There is still hope that a new US President might change course, but how much damage will have been done?

Author: Ray Noble


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