New Delhi: The United States on Wednesday became the first country to formally exit the Paris climate agreement even as Americans waited anxiously for the results of the presidential election. The country’s formal exit from the agreement happened over three years after President Donald Trump, a staunch climate change denier, declared a pull-out from the climate accord in June 2017.
In December 2015, the world reached the landmark agreement in Paris to combat global warming and to intensify actions for low carbon growth. The agreement’s key aim is to keep global temperatures rise in this century well below 2 degree Celsius above the pre-industrialisation levels and to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius. The agreement came into force on November 4, 2016 and 189 countries have adopted it.
Crucially, under the Paris agreement countries for the first time had declared national action plans known as ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDC) outlining targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Though these are not legally binding, they are based on the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), recognising that the obligations of developing countries have to be viewed in the context of their economic and social limitations.
Whether the US, which accounts for 25 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, now rejoins the agreement hinges on the election result. As per the agreement’s terms, countries could serve a formal notice of exit only three years after the agreement entered into force. This was done to make it harder for countries to exit the agreement. Trump’s opponent Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the deal if elected to power. A country can rejoin the deal with a month’s notice.
The Trump administration initiated its formal exit from the agreement last November and a day after the country voted for the 2020 Presidential elections, it has now formally exited it.
Trump had announced the country’s exit from the deal in June 2017 on grounds that it was ‘unfair’ to the US and ‘skewed towards the interests of India and China. “India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries…the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the United States,” he had said back then.
What does this mean for India and its efforts to fight climate change?
In 2015, India played a crucial role in shaping the agreement through the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and LMDC (Like-Minded Developing Countries) country groups. In October 2015, ahead of the annual Conference of Parties in Paris, India had announced its ambitious INDCs.
It pledged a reduction in its emissions intensity of its Gross Domestic Product by 33 to 35 per cent by 2030, below 2005 levels. Crucially, it announced that by 2030, it would increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the installed energy capacity to 40 per cent. Further, it set a target of creating an additional carbon sink to absorb 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by increasing its forest and tree cover by 2030.
India’s climate action goals, government officials said, will continue as per plan even as they termed the US exit as a move that would lead to problems in cutting emissions globally.
“We have already said that we stand by the agreement and we will fully implement our INDCs, so that will not change with the position of the US,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the country’s key negotiator at the 2019 annual climate conference that was held in Madrid, Spain.
Prasad, however, added that the absence of the US is a big global issue as they are the largest historic emitters and prolific accumulators of greenhouse gases. “Mitigation is important and if they do not cut their emissions drastically, it will affect all of us. They have also reduced their funding. Though it does not affect our ongoing projects, having more international funding through Green Climate Fund is good for the agreement,” Prasad added.
Under the Paris agreement, developed countries had also made key commitments to provide finances for the Green Climate Fund, established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This body approves funding for projects in countries that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the form of storms, heat waves and extreme rainfall.
Ajay Mathur, Director-General of The Energy and Research Institute (TERI) and India’s key negotiator and spokesperson at the 2015 Paris conference said that despite its exit from the Paris agreement, the US’s role in future negotiations is more nuanced in reality. He pointed out that the US continues to be a member of the UNFCCC, under which the Paris agreement was ratified, and thus will participate in the annual conferences where countries negotiate on climate change.
“As far as meetings and discussions related to Paris agreements are concerned, they will have an observer status. They will not have a legal seat, no voting rights and they cannot speak unless the chairperson of the meeting allows them to speak. However, they will enjoy full rights at the annual Conference of Parties as long as the meetings are not related to the Paris agreement," Mathur said.
The TERI DG said that as far as India’s interests are concerned, the short term impacts lie in ensuring that there is adequate and affordable energy for all. “The sale of energy and gas are of interest to them. The availability of low cost gas is of interest to us as well. Our real problem is, the gas we are getting is at a high price. If low cost gas is available, this is something that would be of economic interest to India and so there is a possibility that we might have fossil fuel deals between US and India,” Mathur said.
In the long-term, Mathur said there will be an impact on the replenishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). “When the GCF goes for replenishment in the next round, beginning 2022, we will see long-term issues of the US exit. However, the growth of renewable energy in India is happening largely through the private sector and not with support from GCF,” Mathur added.
The US’s exit is extremely important, said Harjeet Singh of Action Aid, simply because it has a historical responsibility towards the world. “Even now, US accounts for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. When we talk of climate change, the problem occurs over a period of time and thus the historical responsibility of the US remains, to reduce their domestic emissions but also in providing finance,” said Singh, Global Climate Lead, ActionAid International.