Roundtable: How to Respond if the U.S. Withdraws from Paris?

Roundtable: How to Respond if the U.S. Withdraws from Paris?
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

In the event of the US leaving the Paris Agreement what will be the reaction of the other signatories?

Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States has raised serious concerns about whether the U.S. will continue to work with its international partners on climate change. At this critical juncture, we ask experts from China, the U.S., and India, how countries might ratchet up their efforts in the event of limited U.S. action or an effort to withdraw from the agreement entirely.

"The global trend towards a low-carbon transition is irreversible."
— Zou Ji, deputy director-general, National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC)

It would be bad news for the implementation of the Paris Agreement if the Trump administration decided to withdraw, but the vast majority of signatories will continue to fulfill the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets they have committed to. Most of the signatories set their NDCs after giving consideration to sovereignty and independence, development plans, trade, and practicalities. Views of a low-carbon transition being nothing but a burden are out of date. The global and national low-carbon transition is no longer just about climate change; it is about using changes in infrastructure investment and technological innovation to reinvigorate the global economy and promote sustainable development.

This is particularly important for the huge developing nations facing another round of industrialization and urbanization. It’s really a question of innovation in how we grow; of reallocating key resources. Companies and industries are already flourishing thanks to the implementation of low-carbon services. Low-carbon trends are on the rise throughout economies from renewable energy to energy-saving buildings, low-carbon transport, and future smart consumption and manufacturing. Anyone who gets left behind by the tide will miss out on future markets and competitiveness and will lose influence in international society. The global trend towards a low-carbon transition is irreversible.

"Countries will ratchet up their efforts because it is in their domestic interests."
Barbara Finamore is Asia director at the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC) and Han Chen is international climate advocate at NRDC

Prominent world leaders have made it clear that they are sticking to the Paris Agreement.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has said, “China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations.” Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) energy chief says the EU is “ready to lead the fight” no matter what Trump does. EU nations are in the process of drawing up their national plans to meet the Paris commitments as part of the EU and, so far, no country has signaled plans to leave the Paris Agreement.

The reality is that countries will ratchet up their efforts because it is in their domestic interests. China’s new 2020 climate roadmap puts China on track to over-achieve its 2020 Paris commitments. In 2016, China cut coal production by 9.4 percent, halted or suspended construction of dozens of coal power plants, and installed 34.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar PV capacity.

India’s installed solar capacity leaped from 0.01GW in 2010, to more than 10GW at the end of 2016. India’s Central Electricity Authority has issued a draft plan with estimates of potential renewables growth to 275GW by 2027 and 57 percent fossil-free electricity by 2027. This is a more ambitious target than India’s current Paris commitment.

Countries are identifying ways to go even further on climate action – no matter what the U.S. does – because the benefits of tackling climate change early are clear, and because clean energy is a better long term investment than fossil fuels.

A large majority of Americans are against a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and say 2:1 that Trump should not cut regulations to combat climate change. Ultimately, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would not serve America’s interests. But either way, we should applaud and encourage other nations that are ramping up their efforts to tackle climate change.

"Least developed countries will fiercely contest a weakened Agreement."
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO of Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a climate thinktank

Is the Paris Agreement on death row? Its central premise that all countries, rich or poor, will contribute to climate mitigation will be upended if the United States withdraws. I foresee three consequences and some hope.

  1. Acting in their self-interest, China, India, and the EU will continue on their chosen paths, which include renewable energy, energy efficiency, and reduction of emissions from other sectors. They will not change their targets significantly, at least not immediately after the first opportunity to take stock in 2018. The wounds of the U.S. withdrawal will be too fresh for them to justify greater ambition to their citizens.
  2. Other emerging economies or developing countries will struggle to fulfill current commitments. Their actions were already contingent on a step change in international financing for climate action. Leveraging international public finance for private investment will remain a far cry. Uncertainties in the Clean Development Mechanism, market will prevail, further undermining investor confidence.
  3. Negotiations over some other aspects of the Paris Agreement will become moot. Without U.S. pressure, China will default to weaker transparency provisions. Least developed countries will fiercely contest a weakened Agreement but attention to adaptation will decline even further.

Any hope? Prices for clean technology will continue to fall (albeit more slowly), and secondary debt markets for green investments will deepen (but not be as large). If China and the EU coordinate to impose carbon taxes or link their carbon markets, a global carbon price might yet emerge outside the UNFCCC process.

"Expect countries to… await the outcome of the presidential elections of 2020."
Richard Klein is a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environmental Institute

A U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – and the likely associated failure to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – would require other countries to increase their ambition if the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celcius or 1.5 degrees Celcius is to be met. However, I doubt that countries would be willing to do so already before the first global stocktake in 2023.

Instead, I would expect countries to update their pledges in the second round of Nationally Determined Contributions, which also gives them the opportunity to monitor developments in the U.S. (for example, at a state level) and await the outcome of the presidential elections of 2020.

A possible defunding of the UNFCCC process would not only reduce the amount of money available to help developing countries take mitigation and adaptation action, but also incapacitate the UNFCCC Secretariat.

This year the U.S. contributes 21 percent of the Secretariat’s core budget; it is unclear how the Secretariat could meaningfully fulfill its broadened mandate if this were to be fully cut.

"China will seek to fill any economic void left by the US on a host of issues."
Andrew Light, distinguished senior fellow at World Resources Institute (WRI), and David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at WRI

At this critical juncture, America should not become a climate isolationist for a number of good reasons:

Diplomatic isolation
The Paris Agreement altered the landscape of global diplomacy and elevated climate change to the level of issues like trade and security. Withdrawing from global climate cooperation would have significant diplomatic repercussions for the U.S. and make it very difficult for the Trump administration to engage other countries on its priority issues. It would also feed public concern in other countries when their governments seek to engage the U.S. in cooperative endeavors.

Economic isolation
China is investing US$360 billion (two trillion yuan) in renewable energy through 2020. Chinese President Xi Jinping has already signaled that China will seek to fill any economic void left by the U.S. on a host of issues. Other countries will no doubt do the same. If the U.S. pulls back from its emissions reduction targets then it cedes the race for the global clean energy economy, valued at a US$6 trillion market by 2030.

Strategic isolation
The U.S. could also isolate itself by not cooperating on efforts to reduce the political instability caused by climate impacts. If the U.S. military is hamstrung by ideological denial of the reality of climate change then it will not be able to cooperate with its counterparts that recognize this threat to global security.

"China is now more proactive than ever in contributing to global governance."
Qi Ye (齊曄), is a professor at Tsinghua University and director at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy

The Obama administration signed the Paris Agreement anticipating that Congress would not ratify it. As such, the Agreement has little chance of becoming domestic law.

So, the U.S. Climate Action Plan was designed to help implement [the U.S.’s climate commitments], as was its cornerstone the Clean Power Plan.

With a President and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency that are anti-climate change, one can imagine the fate of the two plans that were held so dear by the previous administration. However, climate action at a state and local level will surely continue.

In the event of the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, global cooperation on climate change could be endangered. If other countries, especially those from the Umbrella Group, follow suit it may spell the end of the Agreement.

Fortunately, the decision of the U.S. is not expected to affect the policy or actions of China on climate change. This is not only because climate action is consistent with China’s domestic environmental protection, but also because China is now more proactive than ever in contributing to global governance in general, and global climate governance in particular.

In fact, it is time that the international community considers a new global climate governance that works in the Trump era and beyond, no matter what the President decides. The world cannot afford to wait for one man’s decision.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by, a website that tracks Asia’s water crisis. The article was first published by chinadialogue.

TNL Editor: Edward White