David Hone, Shell’s Chief Climate Change Advisor
David Hone was appointed Shell’s Group Climate Change Advisor in 2001

There is an element of déjà vu to President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change – a deal with its core goal to limit warming of the climate system to well below 2° Celsius compared to the mid-19th century.

Sixteen years ago and just days into my new job as Climate Change Advisor at Shell, President George W Bush announced the USA’s complete withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol – an earlier climate agreement.

The Bush decision was widely expected and it helped spell the end of the Kyoto Protocol. Over the next 14 years, the pieces were reassembled, in large part led by the USA under President Barack Obama, with the result being the Paris agreement in December 2015.

When President Trump made his announcement, the reasons given were largely the same as President Bush; unfairness, concerns over competitiveness, the negative impact on the US economy and price increases for consumers. Like President Bush, he also said his administration would be open to fresh negotiations, or an entirely new agreement.

The circumstances, however, are very different this time around. Given the warming trend to date, governments don’t have time to reorganise, negotiate and agree yet another climate deal if society wants to achieve the Paris goal.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have both made it clear that the Paris agreement will not be renegotiated. They were right to reject President Trump’s proposal.

Laurent Fabius sitting at a desk
France's Laurent Fabius, who helped to negotiate the 2015 Paris deal

No such thing as a bad deal

President Trump has described the agreement as a “bad deal” for the USA. But it isn’t a good or bad deal for anyone. It simply reflects the progression required over time to reach net zero-emissions, that is one where any remaining emissions are offset elsewhere, in the second half of the century.

The terms of the Paris agreement allow countries and regions to set their own goals for reducing emissions, with few requirements other than that ambitions to mitigate climate change should increase over time. There is already the option for the USA to both change its initial goal to reduce emissions and to persuade others to improve theirs over the ensuing years.

Under Paris, the USA committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% by 2025, based on 2005 levels. If President Trump wanted to reduce that ambition, he would still have to set a new absolute target, as this is a requirement for developed countries under the deal, but the number could have a much wider margin.

Of course, this isn’t an ideal outcome from a global emissions perspective, but it would keep the USA within the agreement for some time to come.

Should the USA leave the agreement, the remaining countries will continue to implement their national contributions through a variety of approaches. Even within the USA, the current transition to lower-carbon energy will continue; individual states and cities will likely ensure this takes place.

But the energy transition is just one element of the Paris agreement. The reduction in emissions is at its core. And this will require more than just an energy transition to succeed.

It will probably require large-scale deployment of technologies that remove emissions, including storage of carbon dioxide deep underground. This latter step may be the one that suffers following the US announcement.

The Paris agreement can and likely will survive. But other nations need to step up and look beyond their own energy transitions. They need to focus squarely on the need for a net-zero emissions world, within the next 50 to 80 years. Otherwise, the goal of the agreement will be at risk.

 

By David Hone

David discusses the Paris Agreement and its implications in depth in his latest book, Putting the Genie Back: Solving the Climate and Energy Dilemma.

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