EU chief to Trump: China's ready to take climate-change lead if you bail on Paris; Update: Trump withdraws from Paris accord

We’ll find out in just a few minutes whether Paris officially gets a red rose or a Dear Jean letter from Donald Trump. The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay reports that Trump will withdraw as expected — more on that in a moment — but the EU’s top official made one last plea to keep the US in the climate-change pact anyway. Warning that the EU would not allow the US to just depart overnight, Jean-Claude Juncker also appealed to Trump’s sense of America First-ism. A US departure would likely mean that China would become a global leader on environmental restrictions, Juncker told a press conference:

“It’s not possible that one leaves this climate agreement overnight, as some people in the United States think,” Juncker told a conference at the German foreign ministry on Thursday. “This takes three, four years — which is laid down in the agreement itself.” …

“The vacuum that would be created [by the U.S. dropping out of the Paris agreement] has to be filled, and Europe has aspirations for a natural leadership in this whole process,” said Juncker. …

“I’m meeting tonight and tomorrow the Chinese prime minister in Brussels and we need to talk about this with the Chinese. We have explained to [President] Trump in Taormina it wouldn’t be good for the world and the U.S. if the U.S. took a step back from the world stage because vacuum will be replaced and the Chinese are pushing to take over the lead,” he said. “I’m in favor of concluding tasks together with our American partners instead of changing the setup.”

The first part is questionable at best. Even if this carried the weight of a treaty, which is does not, Article 28 of the Paris Accord makes it clear that the withdrawal period is one full year at longest, and that assumes that the withdrawing nation cares enough to abide by the rules they’re rejecting. There may be some quibbles about when the US can withdraw based on “the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party”; the agreement was concluded in December 2015, signed in April 2016, and went into effect in November, four days before the election. One could argue that the US could not submit a formal withdrawal until November 2019 for an effective withdrawal of November 2020. Or one could argue that it started in December 2015 for a slightly earlier exit in a little over two years.

Neverthless, Markay notes that the White House will take its sweet time in pulling out:

The process could be a lengthy one. Catanzaro said the administration will follow the steps for withdrawal laid out in the deal itself. “We will initiate the process, which, all told, takes four years in total. But we’re going to make very clear to the world that we’re not going to be abiding by what the previous administration agreed to.” Trump’s withdrawal from the accord fulfills a major campaign promise, and dovetails with his “America First” mantra, a point stressed by White House deputy communications director Raj Shah in a separate conference call with conservative think tanks and pundits.

Why not just get out now? The Paris accord has no enforcement mechanisms at all anyway, and it’s moot because the Paris accord has never been ratified by the US and does not hold the force of law. Even if it did, no form of the word “enforce” appears in the document anywhere. The only mention of “compliance” comes in Article 15, which sets up a compliance committee tasked to “function in a manner that is transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive,” emphasis mine. The Paris accord has no real penalties for non-compliance with performance metrics other than shaming, and the performance metrics are developed by each country for itself anyway. If one isn’t interested in participating, what penalties could possibly be applied for early withdrawal other than … more shaming? This ain’t Brexit, and we’re not the UK, a point that Juncker seems to forget in this threat.

Oddly, the White House now says that it will “immediately be looking for a better deal.” A better deal than what? Trump could use the Article 28 lead time to delay that break for a while, perhaps as a way to force the EU into better trade deals, but on climate change, it’s tough to see how it could get any better for Trump. We can set our own limits and do our own measurements, and there’s no enforcement mechanisms. It’s tough to see how Trump could do better than that, or why he’d want to get back into a carbon-limiting agreement once free of this one.

However, all of the above points undermine the argument for withdrawing from the Paris agreement, too. There’s no real risk in remaining within it; it’s basically a climate club, and a toothless one at that. They won’t even throw you out for not showing up, as Juncker’s act of desperation demonstrates. It will cost more diplomatically to leave than it will to stick around and ignore it, offering up annual paeans to Gaia while doing exactly as we please otherwise. As long as the climate club offers no enforcement mechanisms, why not play along with it as a means of smoothing diplomacy for issues that matter more to the US?

Update: As expected — but tardy coming to the podium — Trump announces that the US will begin the withdrawal procedure, but wishes to renegotiate a fairer deal that will protect American jobs:

Lots of foreign-policy huffing and puffing over this, almost all of it skipping over the fact that this was a nonsensical agreement from the beginning. Oren Cass tried to remind everyone of this earlier today on Twitter:

In fact, emissions reductions are barely on the table at all. Instead, the talks are rigged to ensure an agreement is reached regardless of how little action countries plan to take. The developing world, projected to account for four-fifths of all carbon-dioxide emissions this century, will earn applause for what amounts to a promise to stay on their pre-existing trajectory of emissions-intensive growth.

Here’s how the game works: The negotiating framework established at a 2014 conference in Lima, Peru, requires each country to submit a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, called an “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC). Each submission is at the discretion of the individual country; there is no objective standard it must meet or emissions reduction it must achieve.

Beyond that, it’s nearly impossible even to evaluate or compare them. Developing countries actually blocked a requirement that the plans use a common format and metrics, so an INDC need not even mention emissions levels. Or a country can propose to reduce emissions off a self-defined “business-as-usual” trajectory, essentially deciding how much it wants to emit and then declaring it an “improvement” from the alternative. To prevent such submissions from being challenged, a group of developing countries led by China and India has rejected “any obligatory review mechanism for increasing individual efforts of developing countries.” And lest pressure nevertheless build on the intransigent, no developing country except Mexico submitted an INDC by the initial deadline of March 31—and most either submitted no plan or submitted one only as the final September 30 cut-off approached. 

After all this, the final submissions are not enforceable, and carry no consequences beyond “shame” for noncompliance—a fact bizarrely taken for granted by all involved.

It’s not even worth a withdrawal, really. The only reason Trump wants to do this is to check a campaign-promise box now, and rejoin the Paris accord with new NDCs later to boost his rep as a master wheeler-dealer. In the end, it won’t change the outcomes at all.

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David Strom 8:31 AM on October 05, 2022