Two weeks of international climate talks ended yesterday with a reminder from Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama of Fiji, whose nation will lead the next meeting, that “no-one, no matter who they are or where they live, will ultimately escape the impact of climate change.” The world’s commitment to the Paris agreement remains strong even though the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases — that’s us – is keeping everyone guessing about its participation. If the Trump administration wants to remove climate data and climate references from EPA’s website, that’s its prerogative. But when it comes to the Paris Climate agreement, the U.S. has to answer to the international community. Under President Obama the U.S. committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. But whether the Trump administration plans to keep the commitment is unclear. We caught up with Zahra Hirji from Inside ClimateNews who has been following this story.
The Allegheny Front: The main way the U.S. was going to meet its climate goal was through cutting emissions from coal fired power plants through the Clean Power Plan. Trump signed an executive order that begins the process of undoing that plan, but now other signatories of the Paris agreement are asking tough questions about how the U.S. will meet that goal. Who is asking these questions and what answers are they getting from the administration?
Zahra Hirji: A lot of countries have been posing questions to the U.S. about how it’s going to meet its short-term climate goals, and also asking about its plans and potential future policies to meeting its mid-term and longer goals. This includes questions from China, questions from the E.U., questions from Japan. And they’re asking specifically, can you lay out your policies for meeting your 2020 goals? How can you do that if you are not planning on going through on the Clean Power Plan? And in many of these cases, the U.S. has provided a boilerplate response, saying that they’re only going to put in place new policies that will boost U.S. economy and U.S. competitiveness. And they also mention to these other countries, repeatedly, that they are reviewing their existing climate policies.
LISTEN: “The World Waits for U.S. Decision on Paris Climate Agreement”
AF: The Trump administration is using buzzwords like “energy independence” and “competitiveness” in response to how it will act on climate change, meaning he doesn’t want to sacrifice jobs or the coal industry for any action it would take. And you’ve reported that they’ve also been very careful not to use the words “clean energy” or mention “renewables.” But how could the U.S. possibly meet its goals under the agreement without renewable energy? Or is that the point, that they’d have to withdraw?
ZH: There have been other analyses that have come out recently about how some of the initiatives of the Trump administration make it impossible for the U.S. to meet its Paris climate goals. And so there is this big question about what it would mean, even if the U.S. stays in this agreement, knowing it couldn’t meet these goals. But I think a lot groups, even environmental groups, that aren’t optimistic that a Trump-led U.S. could meet these goals, still see a very big reason for the U.S. to stay in this agreement. And that’s what many people have dubbed, “a seat at the table.” Climate policy, under Obama, has really become embedded in diplomatic relations. From a diplomatic perspective, it could have impacts far outside the climate world if the U.S. were to leave this agreement.
AF: Like what? What’s an example?
ZH: There’s this idea in diplomacy that even if you switch governments, there’s this expectation that an administration, or a country, will still meet its long term commitments and its goals. For example, the U.S. has been one of the leaders in driving what’s called transparency talks. And that’s all about how within this agreement, countries can keep each other accountable. There’s a big incentive for the U.S. to stay in and help drive these conversations to make sure that other governments are being honest about where their current emissions are, and what that means in terms of meeting their goals. And if the U.S. were to leave the whole agreement, it wouldn’t have that same negotiating power. And the U.S. has been driving transparency talks around climate negotiations, not just under Obama, but under the Bush administration, too.
AF: The U.N. climate talks just wrapped up in Bonn, Germany. You reported that the U.S. sent an unusually small delegation.
ZH: The U.S. sent seven people. Last year, at this same mid-year meeting, they sent 44. So it’s a much smaller group. But this May meeting is really a lead up to the November meeting. It is more of a technical one. They were developing what is called the rule book for the Paris agreement. All of these countries are in the process of figuring out those rules, figuring out the priorities on which rules to do first, and many of those technical conversation were going on at this meeting — really setting the stage for what’s going to happen in November.
AF: Well are other countries kind of scratching their heads about what the U.S.’s role is going to be? The Trump administration hasn’t announced whether they are going to stay in the agreement.
ZH: There are a lot of rumors swirling, and a lot of anxiety, especially in these early days of these talks when it was thought that the Trump administration might actually announce during the first week what their position would be. And that acted as a dark cloud over these talks. A lot of the overarching conversations were supposed to be, “How are we going to amp up our efforts to combat climate change?” And then you’re having these questions dominate about, will the second largest current emitter of greenhouse gases actually pull out of this agreement. But then the Trump administration announced that they will not make the decision until at least the end of the month, and so I think that took away a little bit of the pressure on what the U.S. will or won’t do at those particular talks. From the U.N. in particular, they have tried to deflect or not comment, really waiting to see what will happen before they comment on what possible repercussions could be. But specific countries, specific country delegates, have been a little bit more vocal about how they don’t think it’s a good idea for the U.S. to leave, hinting that there could be a diplomatic fallout for the U.S. if it were to exit this agreement.
AF: So what do we know about what’s taking place inside the administration, and what they might decide at the end of the month?
ZH: I don’t think there are a lot of clues just yet on what they might decide. The Trump administration is deeply divided on this issue. You have EPA administrator Scott Pruitt pushing for an exit of the agreement. Then you have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pushing to have a seat at the table. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has also advocated staying in but changing the U.S. climate pledge. A couple weeks ago it was reported that the group in favor of exiting was winning those conversations. A few days later, it was then announced that the U.S. would not be giving an answer as quickly as it had initially been suggested. One of the big things that is still up in the air is that at the end of the month, there’s the G-7 annual meeting in Italy. And the Trump administration has explicitly said that a decision won’t come until after that meeting. And this will be an opportunity where President Trump will be meeting with group leaders, some of whom are very supportive and have been outspoken about wanting the U.S. to stay in the climate agreement. It’s a question on what will come of that.
Zahra Hirji is a reporter for InsideClimate News. She talked with The Allegheny Front host, Kara Holsopple.