Development organizations and environmental groups reacted with dismay to President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the landmark Paris Agreement, warning that the exit would weaken the United States’ standing as a global development leader, and, ultimately, derail crucial progress on climate change and global poverty reduction.
“If the U.S. is not at the table in the [United Nations] climate talks, it means the U.S. is not at the table in one of the places where development is being discussed in a big way right now,” said Lou Leonard, the World Wildlife Fund’s senior vice president for climate change and energy. “It is not just about climate change. This is about the broader foreign policy agenda and the development agenda. Will the U.S. be a constructive force in those conversations?”
Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change Thursday afternoon, saying, at the White House’s Rose Garden, “I don’t want anything to get in our way. I am fighting everyday for the great people of this country. Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.”
See related coverage:
But, the U.S. will begin negotiations to re-enter “either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction” Trump said, meeting terms that are “fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its taxpayers.”
The U.S. removing itself from the equation — even temporarily — will likely have major development leadership, policy and funding implications, according to leading experts from environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, who warn that other countries will step into the leadership vacuum left by U.S. withdrawal. It’s a suggestion that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made Tuesday during his first major speech on climate change in New York.
“This is a seismic shift in the geopolitical alignment around climate change and sustainable development going forward. We got the Paris Agreement because of U.S. leadership,” said Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy. “China and the European Union are prepared to take over the mantle from the U.S. In effect, the U.S. is still going to move forward on climate action, but the U.S. is ceding leadership.”
The European Union and China are planning to jointly commit to “uphold” their Paris Agreement commitments in a new alliance.
“I think the world is prepared for the worst that Trump can do. I think they’ll just laugh at him and get on with it,” Baroness Shas Sheehan, a member of the British House of Lords and shadow secretary for international development for the Liberal Democrat Party told Devex. “But I think what we must do is really work with developing countries and build in that resilience.”
The decision could also have major climate financing implications. The U.S. has, so far, made good on only $1 billion of the $3 billion it has pledged for the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund, intended to support climate resilient projects in developing countries. Trump took aim at this fund repeatedly Thursday — saying that the fund would obligate the U.S. to commit billions to developing countries, when other nations “have not paid anything.” As of May 12, however, 43 countries had made pledges to the fund, according to GCF. Ten countries have pledged higher per capita contributions than the U.S., including Japan, the U.K., Sweden and France.
Already, Trump’s first budget request, released last week, proposed dramatic cuts for international development institutions and climate work. He reaffirmed Thursday what that request reflected — the U.S. will not fulfill the remainder of its pledge to the fund.
The Paris Agreement, brokered in late 2015, commits all 146 countries that have since ratified it to take individual actions to reduce their carbon emissions — the main contributing factor to global warming. It also calls for five-year reviews of progress toward the goal of keeping the global average temperatures well below 2 degrees celsius.
Nicaragua and Syria are the only two countries that did not initially sign the deal — but Nicaragua, on track to have 90 percent of its energy supplied by renewable sources within three years, cited weak standards and commitments from richer nations. Syria, meanwhile, is in the grip of a deadly and brutal civil war.
The United States has released more harmful carbon dioxide emissions into the planet than any other country — even the entire European Union — during the past 160 years. Yet in the last few decades, the U.S. has spent an increasing amount on climate change research, technology and international assistance. In 2015, the U.S.’ climate financing to developing countries totaled $2.6 billion.
Countries especially vulnerable to the various effects of climate change, from extreme weather to sea level rise, will need an estimated $300 billion a year to help offset these impacts by 2030, according to a recent report released at the U.N. climate negotiations in Bonn. The U.S.’ lack of adherence to its Paris commitments — to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels — could place the world’s emissions trajectory on an increasingly dangerous path and threaten to offset decades of poverty advancements, Deutz said.
“All of the progress of lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty would be undone,” he said. “The U.S. taking its foot off the accelerator increases the risk that we get that future.”
Other major development sector players agreed.
“People around the world — especially those who contribute least to global warming, will be worse off because of today’s decision,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president for advocacy and government relations for Catholic Relief Services, in an emailed statement.
Pierre Ferrari, president and chief executive officer of non-profit Heifer International, called continued participation in the Paris Agreement for ending hunger and poverty worldwide “essential” in a written statement.
Pulling out of the Paris Agreement will also increase global hunger, the Bread for the World Institute, a nonprofit organization that educates policymakers and the public about hunger, warned on Thursday. Climate change increases crop failure, soil degradation, the loss of grazing lands and the destruction of fisheries, all of which will impact both global and local food supplies.
“Climate change is already a significant cause of hunger around the world, said Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute, in a statement. "Because of droughts, floods, and unpredictable weather patterns, farmers in developing countries are no longer able to grow food in places they have been farming for generations. Many are having to leave their communities in search of food or income elsewhere.”
Apple, Facebook, Google and more than 20 other companies published a full-page ad in the New York Times Thursday, urging Trump to stick with the Paris Agreement, which they say reduces business risks and creates jobs. Trump, in his speech, said that the Paris deal “handicaps the U.S. economy,” and citing t U.S. oil and gas workers, said, “We will be environmentally friendly, but we are not going to put our businesses out of work. We are going to grow rapidly.”
While renewable sources make up about 15 percent of U.S. electricity generation, work in renewable energy, now totaling more than 800,000 jobs, is expanding at an extremely fast rate. Leaving the Paris Agreement likely would not create new economic opportunities, economists have found.
The U.S. can withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which is not a legally-binding, international treaty, in a few ways, said Andrew Light, a senior fellow on World Resources Institute's climate team.
One way is for President Trump to write a letter withdrawing the U.S. from the deal that is submitted to the U.N. depository – the same process former president Barack Obama used to enter into the agreement. However, because of the way the agreement was written, he cannot submit that letter until three years after the the agreement came into force, which is November 2019, it will then take a year for the U.S. to withdraw.
The Trump administration could also withdraw from the United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change, the mechanism through which the deal was made. Or, Trump could declare the Paris Agreement a legal treaty and put it before the Senate for approval — requiring two-thirds of a Republican-controlled Senate for support.
By any means, the decision, coupled with Trump’s environmental track-record and policies, will have long-lasting effects, Light said.
“Even if Trump was committed to clean power, we know he is going to slow down the implementation of everything. It will not be that U.S. emissions will suddenly start to skyrocket again,” he said, noting the ongoing work that U.S. cities, states and businesses are undertaking. But the U.S. still will be a big loser if we pull out of the Paris Agreement and will make it much more difficult for our country to compete in the global economy on clean energy.”
President Barack Obama reiterated the sentiment that the world will press on with its commitments to climate change, with or without the U.S.
“The nations that remain in the Paris Agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created,” he said in a statement. “I believe that the United States should be at the front of that pack. But even in the absence of American leadership, I’m confident that our states, cities and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.”
Molly Anders contributed reporting to this article.
Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.