After Trump's withdrawal from Paris, a mixed year on US climate action

The American flag. Photo by: Bruce Mars from Pexels

TORONTO — Last month marked a year since United States President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. In the intervening year, however, U.S. representatives continue to participate in international climate change negotiations and meetings. Meanwhile, the national government still funds some climate adaptation and mitigation initiatives in the developing world.

With China seemingly stepping into the U.S.’s former climate leadership position, all eyes are now on the U.S. midterm elections in November where the make up of U.S. Congress may well determine its climate support.

Two of the favored funds are the Global Environment Facility, which is the longest running international environment fund, and the Multilateral Fund for the implementation of the Montreal Protocol. According to the fiscal year 2018 budget, which was passed last March, six months late, Congress allocated almost $140 million to GEF — roughly 40 percent more than the amount that the Trump administration recommended.

Admittedly, the amount Congress approved is $7 million less than what the U.S. contributed during each of the last two fiscal years. And at the GEF meeting in Vietnam last month, where the fund’s four-year replenishment was finalized, the Trump administration pledged half what the U.S. contributed in the previous cycle. But, the amount that the U.S. will eventually disburse is poised to be higher than it seems.

In a positive sign for climate finance, both the House and the Senate have written in their proposed fiscal year 2019 budget that they want to maintain funding for GEF at previous levels, meaning that actual U.S. support for the fund may not drop.

Congress is also continuing to fund the Multilateral Fund, which supports developing countries to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals some of which, such as chlorofluorocarbons, are stronger greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Congress has allocated $31 million to the fund, which is $1 million less than the previous fiscal year, but will still increase the fund’s available resources by close to 40 percent, noted the World Resources Institute think tank.

“There is still an understanding in Congress that while the Trump administration has had a lot of rhetoric about zeroing climate finance, Congress hasn’t actually agreed to that and they’re still funding some of the multilateral development banks that are doing quite a lot on climate finance,” said Joe Thwaites, an associate at WRI’s Sustainable Finance Center.

Thwaites points out two things that the aforementioned funds have going for them. First, is that they’re both about 25 years old, and have built up constituencies within Congress, who have seen the projects and recognize their strong track records. Second is that they were both created under Republican administrations and the U.S. has supported them since their inception — there’s an understanding in Congress that these funds have always been supported.

The biggest challenge is in getting funding for the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund — the most politically sensitive and largest multilateral climate fund. The U.S. has an outstanding balance of $2 billion out of the $3 billion that President Barack Obama pledged to GCF back in 2014. Obama paid out the $1 billion before he left office, but the rest of the money is needed fast. While its board struggles to reach a consensus on GCF’s first replenishment process, GCF is poised to run out of funds, which partially contributed to a breakdown of its board meeting.

Jonathan Pershing, program director of environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a former special envoy for climate change at the U.S. Department of State under the Obama administration, remains optimistic about the state of GCF.

“While the inability of the GCF board to reach [an] agreement at its July meeting comes at an inopportune time and is likely to add a further complication to some of the ongoing negotiations in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we should not overreact,” he said. “A number of additional factors need to be considered.”

First, the GCF board will meet again in October, at which point Pershing predicts that a wider consensus seems likely to emerge than was possible at this session. “In fact, the inability of the group to reach a consensus may drive all members to work actively between now and then to find common ground,” he added.

Second, that the UNFCCC negotiations are at a mid-point. While the interim session in Bangkok this September will “of course” take note of the GCF discussions, final decisions are not expected until the Conference of the Parties, which will be held this December in Katowice, Poland after the next GCF board meeting — when things presumably will be resolved. And lastly, that the underlying work of GCF is continuing and in fact has demonstrated “substantial impact” in its relatively short operational life, said Pershing.

Now, if climate-conscious leaders can just tip the balance of power in their direction during the midterm elections in November, the new Congress may be more open to disbursing the money that the U.S. originally committed to the fund.

Subnational efforts

Trying to pick up where the national government has left off, several subnational actions and actors have stepped up their game on climate action and climate finance. For instance, several council members in the District of Columbia recently introduced the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act of 2018.

If passed, the legislation will establish the nation’s most aggressive renewable portfolio standard as well as create a first-of-its-kind mandatory building energy performance standard program for the district’s large and new buildings.

Senator Michael Barrett of Massachusetts introduced a bill last year that would create a voluntary check-off option for the state’s residents to contribute a portion of their tax refund to the U.N.’s Least Developed Countries Fund. The bill is still moving through the process in the state legislature with the session not expected to finish until the end of the month.

While it’s not clear if the bill can pass procedural hurdles necessary to be enacted into law this year, Jesse Young, senior advisor on climate and energy at Oxfam America, said it could one day serve as a prototype for other states.

“Obviously, the big picture hope for that piece of legislation is a replicable model for other states that are interested,” he said.

More announcements on climate initiatives spearheaded by leaders of state, academia, businesses, and others, are expected to be made in mid-September at the Global Climate Action Summit in California.

China’s new role

As the U.S. struggles to regain a firm grip on climate action, China continues to forge ahead. This month in Beijing, China and the European Union signed a previously derailed joint statement that will make climate change and clean energy a “main pillar of their bilateral partnership.”

As part of the agreement, both parties agreed to promote the “effective implementation of the Paris Agreement in all its aspects” and “recall” that developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing countries with their climate needs and goals, among other things.

This development is in line with China’s stepped up rhetorics on climate change, Li Shuo, Beijing-based senior climate and energy officer at Greenpeace East Asia, told Devex.

He pointed to the crucial 19th Party Congress in November 2017, where the country’s leaders vowed for the first time that China will become an important "participant, contributor, and leader" of global climate governance. “This is both a significant step forward in international climate politics and an interesting departure from Beijing's previously reserved diplomatic strategy,” said Li.

The rhetoric is underpinned by the Ministerial on Climate Action, which is initiated and chaired jointly by China, Canada, and the EU. MoCA was created to maintain global climate momentum in the absence of meaningful U.S. climate action and was already convened twice, once last September in Montreal and again in June in Brussels.

“The fact that China is now convening a major platform demonstrates the willingness, commitment, and ownership of it in moving forward the global climate agenda,” said Li. “MoCA is also a rare example of developing and developed country partnership, which also indicates how China perceives its changing role and responsibility.”

Meanwhile, domestic environmental protection in China has been elevated to an unprecedented level on the political agenda. “This is an important step not to be underestimated and will provide the foundation of China's global stance on this issue,” Li noted.

China is now slated to overshoot its goals for reducing carbon intensity, which is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output. As part of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord on climate change, China pledged to reduce carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. By the end of 2017, the reduction is already at 46 percent, reported the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

There are also signs that the Chinese government is considering enhancing its nationally determined contributions, which are the country’s individual commitments under the Paris Agreement, before 2020.

“In the next few years, I actually think the impact of China on U.S. climate policy is a more relevant topic, instead of the other way around.”

—  Li Shuo, senior climate and energy officer at Greenpeace East Asia

China’s path towards climate leadership hasn’t been smooth. This past April, the Chinese government supported the International Maritime Organization’s first ambitious strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for shipping in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals — despite domestic industrial push back. When it came to negotiating the detailed rules of a framework on reducing further growth of the global aviation industry, Li says that China and Brazil have been “difficult.”

Other challenges lie ahead. China's coal consumption slightly increased last year. While this won't reverse the fact that coal already peaked in 2013 and China is already set to overshoot its climate targets, the difference between a steady decline and a bumpy ride matters greatly for global emissions. It’s also notable that this rough patch is largely due to China's own domestic problems, not U.S.’s actions, noted Li.

Moving forward, the U.S. climate change community hopes that the outpouring of local support for climate action following Trump’s distorted attacks on global warming over the past year could spur the next administration to be more climate-friendly and help the country reclaim its mantle as a global climate leader.

But, some Chinese experts have a different view. “In the next few years, I actually think the impact of China on U.S. climate policy is a more relevant topic, instead of the other way around,” said Li.

“In what position will it put the next U.S. administration, assuming it is a climate-friendly one, in its dealings with Beijing, if China is doing more than its joint pledge with the U.S., whereas the U.S. is doing less?”

About the author

  • Fatima Arkin

    Fatima Arkin is a Devex contributor specializing in climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. She has reported across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America for Foreign Policy,, Maclean's, and many others. She holds a B.A. in international development and history from McGill University and a graduate diploma in journalism from Concordia University, both located in Montreal, Canada.