Paris Climate Agreement negotiator speaks in Cleveland: ‘What now?’

The Paris Climate Agreement could well remain intact despite the Trump administration’s earlier statements and actions on the Clean Power Plan, according to the lead climate lawyer who worked on the deal.

As it stands now, the agreement gives the United States basically what it wanted, said former U.S. State Department Deputy Legal Adviser and Lead Climate Lawyer Susan Biniaz, who addressed the Cleveland Council on World Affairs on Thursday, April 13.

Specifically, instead of emissions reductions imposed by others, the agreement gave the United States and other countries the right to determine their own contributions to global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

On the other hand, if the United States pulled out of the agreement, America’s credibility in the international sphere could be severely damaged, and other countries might be much less willing to bargain on foreign policy matters, Biniaz suggested.

“I think the backlash could well go beyond climate change,” she said.

Nationally determined contributions

In the lead-up to the Paris Climate Agreement, the United States had been unwilling to agree to legally binding commitments that did not apply to emerging economic powers, such as China. Meanwhile, China and other developing countries had balked at being subjected to mandatory requirements, Biniaz said.

And although various European countries and others wanted binding commitments, they were less willing to agree to specific penalties if a country didn’t meet its obligations, she added. In fact, if countries were afraid of sanctions, many would likely be unwilling to agree to ambitious targets, versus ones they could meet more easily, she noted.

The Paris Climate Agreement provided a solution that seemed to satisfy the competing interests. “We came up with this idea that everyone’s contribution should be nationally determined,” Biniaz said. In other words, each country would set its own ambitious targets and work to meet them.

In 2014, China and the United States both announced their countries’ nationally determined contributions. Other countries were then encouraged to decide upon and announce their own targets in advance of the Paris meeting.

The United States signed and accepted the Paris Climate Agreement last year. Formal Senate ratification was determined not to be necessary because the country’s substantive targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions were not imposed by the treaty, Biniaz explained.

Options ahead

As Biniaz sees it, the Trump administration faces four basic options.  First, it can accept the Paris Agreement and the United States’ nationally determined contribution as they stand. “You would get a lot of good will for staying in,” Biniaz observed.

A second option would be to stay in, but try to change the nationally determined target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent, she continued. That would have both pros and cons in the foreign policy arena, she suggested.

Various people and organizations, including Exxon and former campaign energy adviser Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, have advocated remaining in the Paris Climate Agreement in some form.

The third option of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement completely “would almost certainly cause a huge negative international reaction,” Biniaz said. And, under the terms of the agreement, the United States wouldn’t be able to withdraw for another 2 1/2 years or so in any case, she added.

The “most extreme option” would be complete withdrawal from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Biniaz added. The United States entered into that treaty when Republican George H.W. Bush was president.

Either of those two withdrawal options would likely damage the United States’ credibility and negotiating strength in a variety of arenas, Biniaz noted. Meanwhile, it would let China “act like the global leader” on the issue of climate change.

Energy trends

Negotiations on the Paris Climate Agreement aren’t the only force affecting greenhouse gas reductions in the world. Various market reports suggest that many companies, countries and non-country governments will continue to shift away from coal and towards natural gas and renewable energy in any event.

“The Paris outcome left a big space for recognition of companies and sub-state [non-country] entities,” such as California or other states and cities, Biniaz noted.

Large companies such as PepsiCo, Alcoa, Wal-Mart, Microsoft and others made public pledges in support of the Paris Climate Agreement even before it was finalized. And even though California can’t join the agreement, its actions and contributions make a statement, along with those of other cities and non-country governments around the world.

“In some ways, even if the Trump Administration were to pull out of the Paris Agreement, you have a lot of entities in the U.S. showing they’re still committed,” Biniaz observed.

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