Hugh Johnson, November 17 (Bonn, Germany)

It is the second-to-last day of COP23 and the last day of scheduled programming in the US Climate Action Center, an NGO-driven response to the absence of an official US Pavilion. In a two hour panel discussion, we were afforded the opportunity to hear some of the opinions and prognostications on what the potential US withdrawal might look like and what the consequences might be from two long-time civil servants who helped deliver the historic agreement in 2015.  Sue Biniaz, the former principal lawyer on climate negotiations at the State Department since 1989, and Todd Stern, former US Special Envoy and lead negotiator for the US on the Paris Agreement. Their comments addressed the following questions:

  • Why did Paris succeed?
  • Will the US withdrawal prompt other countries to follow?
  • What are the likely and unlikely options for the US to stay in?
  • Will the US rejoin in the near future?

Their responses are summarized and discussed in the sections below

Why Did Paris Succeed?

In discussing why the Paris Agreement succeeded in garnering such wide-spread global support in comparison to the Kyoto Protocol and other more recent attempts such as the deal trying to be reached at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the simple answer is the bottom-up approach whereby each country determined their own, initial, non-binding nationally determined commitments (NDC’s) based upon their own capacity.  With the development of NDC’s also came greater transparency and an emphasis on the role of ambition.  The adopted framework provided flexibility for each country’s capacities, thereby supporting the elimination of categorical separation of participant’s targets as seen under Kyoto (e.g. Annex I and Annex II countries).  Each country is required to produce a baseline inventory which undergoes an expert technical review which allows the global and domestic communities to determine if an individual countries’ initial NDC’s and their subsequent updated commitments every five years, are sufficiently ambitious. In Stern’s words the idea was that international “norms will take us much farther than laws” and help create an “ethos where standards are continually ratcheted up”.  The concern among negotiators regarding legally binding initial targets is that it would have weakened ambition and encouraged “low-balling” to ensure compliance.  Legally binding targets would have also potentially precluded US involvement as it would have required ratification by the US Senate, which seemed unlikely at the time, as opposed to an Executive Order.  While Biniaz notes that countries’ mid-century strategies for deep decarbonization are hugely important and perhaps even more so than any one short-term target, updating the NDC’s in 2020 is critical to the long-term success of the agreement, while Stern notes that it could be severely detrimental to the success of the overall agreement should countries try to insert more robust mid-century strategies rather than more ambitious new NDC’s.  This is one of the reasons why the agreement adopted a five year cycle of submitting new NDC’s so that previous targets expired rather than simply allowing a progress report on longer-term targets. The five year cycle also allows each country to have an evolving definition of what they are “able” to do as the cost benefit equation changes in the face of both increasing threats and decreasing costs.

Will Other Countries Follow the US’s Lead and Withdraw and What are the Options for the US to Stay In?

Biniaz again stated the advantages of the bottom-up approach achieved through the NDC development process.  She believes one of the reasons other countries will not follow the US lead is because the NDCs were a result of each country determining what course of action and targets made sense for them and much less about what any other particular country was doing.  Stern talked about the widespread awakening to the consequences of climate change as people are bombarded by a 24 hour news cycle of floods, storms, droughts and wild fires that are bringing the message home while Biniaz talked about the strong commitments that are being publicly made by US states, cities and businesses. Campaigns such as We Are Still In, which represents thousands of governors, mayors, CEO’s and university presidents who have pledged to meet or exceed the US Paris commitments, and the Under2 Coalition, a global coalition of sub-national governments, including several US states and cities have been referenced repeatedly in sessions this week at COP23 where we’ve heard from government representatives from around the world stating the importance of these sub-national US commitments to building trust and sustaining momentum.

Biniaz described five scenarios under which the US may decide to stay in the Paris Agreement since, as of this date, no formal declaration of withdrawal has been submitted other than President Trump’s intention to do so at a press briefing in June, where he also mentioned the possibility of renegotiation.  The first potential possibility, the renegotiation of the entire agreement, which immediately upon the President’s announcement, was dismissed by the majority of signatories, is deemed extremely unlikely.  The second option would be for the US to simply lower its target for emissions reductions.  The legality of this option has been debated by both legal scholars in the US and around the world, but Biniaz stated, as she has from the beginning, that she does not see anything in the agreement, as written, that would preclude the US from lowering its targets.  Stern said that his “gut sense” is that this is the only plausible scenario that would keep the US in the agreement under the current administration and that while a horrible outcome, it would be better than outright withdrawal.  Stern also commented however, that the process of withdrawal takes at least four years and it seems unclear who in the Administration has been tasked with navigating this multi-year process or given events to date, if those people who have been identified internally, will remain with the administration long enough to see it through.  The third and fourth options respectively would involve seeking more favorable terms on reaching the US targets or striking bi-lateral or multi-lateral agreements with other large producers such as China that would provide a rational for the administration to stay in the agreement.  The fifth and final option is “none of the above” meaning that the current Administration has no real intention of seeking a path forward that would keep them in the agreement. Both Biniaz and Stern agreed that this is the most likely outcome.

Will the US Be Back in the Paris Agreement?

While neither Biniaz nor Stern would speculate on a timeline, Stern unequivocally stated that the US will be back in the Paris Agreement.  He lamented the politicization of the US’s involvement and spoke to the fact that it is largely unprecedented for an administration to backtrack or pull out of an international treaty joined by a previous administration regardless of party.  He supported his opinion of an inevitable return by pointing to polling that shows that the majority of the US public support the US’s involvement in the Paris Agreement and that the percentage of US businesses who are actively pledging to meet or vastly exceed the initial targets are increasing on a daily basis.

Final thought

After five days at COP23, I believe the general sentiment towards the current Administration’s position on climate-change is that it will be shown to be an aberration and that it does not represent a long-term shift in engagement or diplomacy by the US.  That sentiment has been buoyed by the groundswell of local and state government action. This said, if global ambition does not motivate governments to step up in 2020, there is real concern over the long-term success of the historic Paris Agreement that was reached just two years ago.