President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate accord has been received in many circles as an unmitigated disaster. But we should look past the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. If one actually reviews the consequences of withdrawal, it deserves more of a yawn.
In order to get so many nations to agree to the accord, each signatory was allowed to propose their own plan, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. These plans are intended to outline how each nation will comply with the agreement. There is no standard method for expressing goals or measuring performance. The goals are entirely voluntary, and there is no enforcement mechanism.
What do these plans look like? The U.S. document is clear, and it has quantifiable goals. The U.S. committed to reduce carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. It lists what gases are included and how they will be measured. Regardless of the attainability of the goal, it is clear and can be measured.
What do other plans look like? China, which is the world’s largest carbon emitter at approximately 12.5 million kilotons per year (the U.S. emits approximately 6.3 million kilotons), has a lengthy document. It describes the admirable work undertaken in China to reduce pollution of all kinds. But its document clearly states that China’s carbon emissions will continue to grow and peak around 2030.
India is the world’s third largest emitter of carbon. Instead of specifying a reduction or expected emissions target through 2030, India expresses its goal of emissions as a percent of gross domestic product. This is an important measure, as it indicates the carbon intensity of economic activity, but emissions can keep climbing as GDP hopefully increases. India estimates that meeting its goals will cost trillions of U.S. dollars, and it expects funding to come from global sources.
So, if we look at the three biggest carbon emitters, China, the U.S., and India, we have three very different plans and goals. The U.S. has outlined a quantifiable reduction, China will continue to increase emissions through 2030, and India will reduce the GDP intensity of carbon emissions, but it is silent on total output and expects other nations to fund its program. I find it hard to view these different goals as fair or equitable. China’s and India’s positions are understandable; they intend to grow their economies and bring millions out of poverty. But forcing the U.S. to undertake drastic reductions while global emissions continue to grow hardly makes sense.
What has actually happened over the past couple of decades? U.S. carbon emissions peaked in 2007, and they have since declined by about 12 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This decline is significant, because it occurred during a period of economic growth. As a percentage of GDP, emissions have declined by 40 percent since 1990. On a per capita basis, carbon emissions are down 14 percent since 1990. Public policy and technological innovation are producing results — arguably much more efficiently than voluntary global agreements.
The Paris accord is a flawed document, and it has so many signatories that they know that it is unenforceable and in some ways not even measurable. The variety of stated goals is costly and unfair to the U.S., and will result in little, if any change in emissions.
The Paris accord was not put before the Senate, most likely because it stood little chance of ratification. If we think that a global agreement is necessary, and the progress the U.S. is making on its own leaves that open to debate, then we should negotiate something fair to all nations, including the U.S., and that would stand some chance of ratification. In the meantime, a little less hand-wringing and a bit more rational debate will help us improve upon the already good progress we’ve made.
Peter Triandafillou is a professional forester licensed in Maine, and he works for the forest products industry. He lives in Orono.