Analysis. Climate NGOs are worried the formal withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement will trigger a domino effect among other right-wing populist governments. But the UN, France, China, and even Russia remain committed to the accord.

Despite US withdrawal, Macron and Xi fight to save the Paris Agreement

The official confirmation of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has given rise to negative reactions around the world, even though it was expected and will not take effect, according to the rules, until a year from now, after the next US presidential elections. (And, if a Democrat wins, they could reverse the decision as early as on Jan. 20, 2021.)

The official announcement has come a month before the next climate conference, the COP25, an event that has already gone through many organizational difficulties. The host country was supposed to be Brazil, but they refused because of Jair Bolsonaro’s climate skepticism. Then, the summit was moved to Chile, where it also ran into problems due to the ongoing social protests. In the end, it will be held in Spain between Dec. 2-13.

The organizational structure will still be Chilean (25,000 delegates are expected), while Madrid will provide the logistics (indeed, this is not the first time that a “guest” country organizes a COP in another state—this also happened in 2017, when the conference was held in Bonn, the seat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which is chairing the COP, while the official organizers were the Fiji Islands). 

Besides, while the US has exited the Paris Agreement, it remains a part of the UN Framework Convention, in addition to the fact that no less than 25 US states and 430 cities (representing 65% of the US population and 68% of its economy) have chosen to remain under the Agreement. The fact remains, however, that Trump’s decision might cause a domino effect and lead other countries governed by populists skeptical of climate science to exit the Paris Agreement in turn.

An official from French President Emmanuel Macron’s office has said that this was an expected procedural step, adding that “we regret this, and this only makes the Franco-Chinese partnership on the climate and biodiversity more necessary.” Macron, who is on a visit to China, said that “the cooperation between China and the European Union in this respect is decisive. Next year, we need, in the agenda of enhancement, to be collectively up to the task.” 

The Agreement features a commitment to limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade, but in actual fact, the commitments currently made by the signatory countries would lead to a rise of over 3 degrees, which is a level considered too high to avoid large-scale risks. For the COP25, Chile has chosen the “Blue COP” as the main theme of the talks, dedicated to the oceans and the threat of a rise in sea levels that could jeopardize nearly a billion people by the end of the century, causing mass migrations on a truly Biblical scale.

China, which is the second largest emitter of CO2 after the United States, is urging Washington to “take more responsibility” and “do more to contribute a driving force to the multilateral cooperation process, instead of adding negative energy.” President Xi Jinping is stressing that China decreased its CO2 emissions by 46% in 2018, reaching the commitments made under the Paris Agreement before schedule. Russia has also said that Trump’s decision “seriously undermines” the Agreement.

On paper, the US withdrawal should not in fact jeopardize the Agreement: it is based on a consensus between 197 countries, of which 186 have ratified it up to now, and the US withdrawal means that it will include the countries responsible for 79% of CO2 emissions (instead of 97% with the US), still above the minimum threshold of 55% (and 55 countries), which was the requirement for the Paris Agreement to enter into force on Nov. 4, 2016.

The UN remains optimistic. For the head of the UN climate agency, Patricia Espinosa, “It is encouraging to see countries working together in the spirit of multilateralism to address climate change, the biggest challenge facing this and future generations.” 

The NGOs, however, are very worried. “An extremely serious signal, which could have consequences in the current geopolitical context of the growth of extremism and populism. We must avoid a domino effect that would involve other countries, particularly Brazil,” warned the French NGO Reseau Action Climat.

The news coming from the climate change front is increasingly worrying. In the last few days, for instance, New Delhi has gone into a state of environmental emergency. The EU continues to say that it wants to be at the forefront of the fight against global warming, and the new Commission has committed to implementing a Green New Deal. However, there are more and more difficulties to be overcome: the new EC President, Ursula von der Leyen, was unable to get the members of her Commission approved by the European Parliament on schedule, as the vote has already been postponed by one month and may be postponed again, because there are still three Commissioner seats vacant (after the rejection of the candidates from France, Hungary and Romania). Budapest and Paris have sent in new candidates (to be subjected to hearings in Strasbourg), but Brussels is still waiting for Romania to name its replacement.

The EU has ratified the Paris Agreement on Oct. 5, 2016 (when 11 individual EU countries also did so), but a new and weak Commission, without a secure parliamentary majority, might end up hostage to the decisions of governments, and is threatened by paralysis in a Council where one can easily predict that national interests will take the upper hand, given the difficulty of reconciling economic interests and the environment.

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