With or without the Paris Agreement – An action climate policy under trump is not the last word

Yesterday, President Donald Trump declared in the White House Rose Garden that he would start measures to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, putting his country back into the “rogue state” category in international climate negotiations, the second time after the George W. Bush administration dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol in March 2001. However, support for international climate actions among the US electorate has grown since then, as has the willingness and ability of actors on the sub-national level to pursue their own ambitious climate agenda.

Protest in front of the White House in Washington D.C.
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Protest in front of the White House in Washington D.C.

In fact, despite Trump’s announcement and de facto renunciation of America’s role as a global climate leader, the Trump administration cannot claim to speak for nor curtail the actions of ambitious climate actors in the United States. The good  news, and one that keeps hope alive that as a country acting responsible to combat climate change the United States collectively is better than its current leader, is that there are other strong players in the US on the sub-national state and city levels who legislate and fight for an ambitious climate policy.

61 mayor US cities still would adopt Paris Agreement goals

Right after Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement 61 Mayors representing 36 million Americans declared in a joint statement #cities4climate that they would adopt the Paris Agreement goals and strengthen relationships around the world to protect the planet and create a clean energy economy. This is very much in line with the growing role of non-state actors like cities in the climate process, including in the C40 cities climate leadership group, which brings 90 global cities with 650 million people and a quarter of the global economy together. The C40 Board of directors is headed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose significant private philanthropy supports the initiative, which besides New York city counts 11 other US metropolitan areas. Some 27 cities, including  Atlanta and Chicago, have already committed to producing their entire electricity demand by 2025 with renewables. States like Minnesota, Illinois, New York, California, Washington, Oregon and New England in setting their own CO2 emissions reduction commitments have already gone significantly higher than federal level targets set under the American INDC.

In the United States, like globally, the shift toward renewables is irreversible. Renewables are getting more and more competitive and become attractive investment alternatives, as the costs of solar and wind power generation declined within the last eight years by 80 percent and 60 percent respectively.  Green technologies such as such as storage solutions and electric vehicles – incidentally in which former Trump-pal Elon Musk sees his company Tesla’s economic futures -- are becoming likewise more cost-competitive and contribute to making the business case for strong investments in clean energies.

At the state-level, significant progress can already be seen, including in “red” traditional republican states. Take Kansas for example. While the state produced less than one percent of its energy from wind in 2005, the state’s share of wind power in the total energy generation nowadays reaches 30 percent.  And nation-wide, today   two thirds of the total new installed electricity capacities in the US in 2016 are generated by wind and solar. 

Lost coal jobs won't come back

Thus, on many levels the President Trump’s argument that he is “for Pittsburgh and not for Paris” and that his move protects American jobs has been thoroughly debunked. Renewable energy and further green technologies already create many new jobs.  With 260,000 people, the solar industry in the US already employs a multitude of the 76,572 people employed by the American coal industry in 2014, the latest year for which data is available. And with much cheaper national gas production in the US soaring, with or without the Paris Agreements, those lost coal jobs won’t come back. Including in Pittsburg, the traditional steel city in the country’s rust belt, where most jobs nowadays are found in the health services and education industries and not the coal or steel industries.

That most US states will not go back on their commitment to address climate change, even if the federal government plans to, is nowhere clearer than in statements coming out of California, where the state parliament over the past few days in anticipation of the Trump announcement has worked feverishly to cement its climate-progressive legislation and make it “Trump-proof” by insulating California from federal environmental rollbacks. According to California's Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon who spoke on national public radio just hours after the Trump announcement, California will double down in its effort to be a global climate leader with the goal of reaching 100 % clean energy by 2045. What sounds like hyperbole coming from a US state is not: were California an independent country, it would be the sixth largest economy in the world and part of the G7. For California, which created 500,000 new clean energy jobs in the past few years and prides itself on having successfully delinked carbon emissions from GDP growth, pushing forward with ambitious climate commitments is the only way for the future. And California seems ready to work with other US states in a “coalition of the willing” in defiance of the Trump White House domestically and internationally.

Majority of US citizens supports global climate actions

President Trump in his televised announcement in the White House Rose Garden today might have received the cheap applause of those present, and secured an easy win for accomplishing a campaign promise with his core voters (it will be much harder to so that with health care or tax reform), but he cannot count on the support of the majority of US citizens for his move.  Recent polls have highlighted that around 62 percent of Americans overall supported staying in the agreement, including a 60-plus percent majority of political independents. And as the People’s Climate March or the March for Science just weeks ago with more than 100,000 US citizens on the street in Washington in support of US climate action have shown, citizens’ and civil society organizations will not be silenced, including by working toward an electoral set-back from Trump’s agenda in the 2018 mid-term elections.

With states, cities and citizens willing to double down and move ahead with climate commitments, the global community can still count on many Americans willingness to act responsibly in support of global climate actions, even if their White House is not.

Unfortunately, such activism will not make up for the failure of the Trump administration to make good on its international climate finance obligation. Even if the declaration is actually old news and without much additional consequence, the shortchanging of international climate finance by the Trump White House will be hard to ignore. The announcement of  America’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is making now formal what the Trump administration had already demonstrated domestically with its FY 2018 budget request weeks earlier: that under this administration, there will be no US financial support to developing countries to help them in realizing their climate ambitions -- and in all honesty, the outcome would most likely have been the same, even if the Trump administration had decided to stay in the Paris Agreement.  Or as White House Budget director Mulvaney said in mid-March with respect to both international and domestic climate funding: "We're not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that." Case in point is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Trump budget proposal wants to discontinue funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts. While the Trump’s White House FY2018 budget proposal will likely change in order to gain approval by the US Congress, it is unlikely that a Republican majority in both houses will restore international climate finance commitments to it.

There will be a net loss in climate finance support 

To recall, many developing countries in submitting their Intended Nationally Designated Contributions (INDCs) in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit had clearly indicated what they can achieve with domestic efforts alone and how much of their ambition was conditional on international climate finance support by developed countries, the USA included. For example, just to implement the INDCs of the 48 poorest developing countries could cost as much as US$93 billion per year, with a significant share to come from international sources. And a key country like India, has made all of its INDC implementation costs, a reported US$2.5 trillion over 15 years, fully conditional on international finance support. Thus, the United States’ refusal under Trump to fulfill financial obligations under the UNFCCC toward the agreed US$ 100 billion per year by 2020, which was the financial baseline under which climate finance support was to be ratcheted up under the Paris Agreement, undoubtedly will have a “cooling effect” on the ability of developing country Parties to raise their emission reduction commitments as part of the review and global stocktake process under the Paris Agreement over the next few years. And while core elements of the Paris Agreement implementation, such as writing the technical rule-book, can move forward without the Trump Administration over the next few years (presumably until a follow-up, more enlightened US administration recommits to the Paris Agreement), there will be a net loss in climate finance support – especially, since other OECD countries won’t be willing to make up the US financing shortfall while increasing their own financial contributions at the same time as would be needed.  It can only be hoped that the US actions won’t produce additional blatantly unapologetic copy cat climate finance renegades among developed countries.

The accounting methods of prior US financial contributions in support of climate change actions globally might have been questioned frequently (such as whether loans and guarantees under a US export credit agency should be counted toward the fulfillment of American climate finance obligations), but they will now be missed indiscriminately in the international climate negotiations. The FY18 budget by the White House eliminates the Global Climate Change Initiative(GCCI) entirely , which provided for example US$10 million in support of the UNFCCC and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in last year’s budget – a sum that while nominally small nevertheless means tremendous financial shortfalls to secure the ongoing work of both bodies. On the campaign trail, Trump had already promised to cancel all US payments to “UN climate change programs” and his FY18 budget zeros out any support for the Green Climate Fund (GCF) considered instrumental for the Paris Agreement implementation. This despite the US$ 3 billion signed contribution agreement by the Obama Administration to the GCF, making the USA technically the largest single country contributor to the US$10.3 billion pledged to the GCF, of which the previous administration could only deliver US$1 billion – including with a last minute US$ 500 million wire-transfer to the GCF on the way out. While the Global Environment Facility (GEF) will continue to receive US money as the only multilateral environment fund under Trump’s budget, contributions would be reduced by 30 percent versus fiscal 2017 levels. Trump’s budget proposal is also cutting American support to multilateral development banks (MDBs) by a quarter, which by their own accounts are significant players in global climate finance with $25 billion in 2015 alone.  In the past, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which the Trump FY 2018 budget no longer supports, issued US$ 1 billion per year in loans, guarantees and insurance to mobilize private sector investments in renewable energy . Probably most shockingly, all other clean energy programs under the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department, a significant chunk of the American bilateral climate assistance, are also completely defunded and sustainable development activities for example for biodiversity or sustainable landscapes reduced to the point of extinction. By some calculations, the cut in related development assistance could be US$ 2.9 billion for FY 2018.  

If one looks for any  hopeful news coming out of the United States on climate-change related financing, it is actually with respect to shareholder actions of US-based investment firms like BlackStar or Vanguard. They are flexing their muscle and demanding climate change financial accountability of their long-term investment portfolios from the corporations in which they invest. Their latest victory: the world’s largest oil company, US giant Exxon Mobil – which is incidentally the old stomping ground of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who reportedly fought and lost the battle in the Trump administration for the United States to remain in the Paris Agreement.