HIKONE, SHIGA PREF. – The Paris Agreement aimed at combating global warming, which went into effect on Nov. 4, is exposed to the same crisis that beset the Kyoto Protocol adopted at the 3rd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 1997.
When the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, the United States was led by the administration of President Bill Clinton. During an opening ceremony of a ministerial meeting held halfway through the Kyoto conference, Vice President Al Gore, taking the podium after Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, urged the U.S. delegation to take a more flexible course of action on the assumption that the projected protocol would include measures to utilize the market mechanism. This served to clear the way for conclusion of the accord.
What Gore suggested was that the U.S. delegates would be ready to accept a scheme for reducing its average annual greenhouse gas emissions in the 2008-2012 period by 7 percent compared with the 1990 level, on condition that the protocol clearly spelled out introduction of economic measures such as emissions trading, joint implementation and clean development mechanisms to achieve the goals. That way, Gore sent a warning to countries resisting drastic cuts to emissions of global warming gases, including Japan, the host of the conference.
While the European Union, a key player in the Kyoto talks, had already been prepared to accept an 8 percent emissions cut for its members, a 6 percent reduction target envisaged for Japan was a hurdle unacceptably too high, since the government had anticipated a 2.5 percent reduction until just before the start of the Kyoto meeting. It is no exaggeration to say that Gore’s speech played a decisive role in guiding the conferees in Kyoto to adopt the protocol in the subsequent one week of talks.
In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, however, Democratic candidate Gore narrowly lost to Republican George W. Bush. On March 28, 2001, shortly after taking office, Bush declared that the U.S. would break away from the Kyoto Protocol, citing two reasons — that the provisions of the protocol would be damaging to the U.S. economy, and that the accord was meaningless because it was not joined by China and other newly rising and developing economies. The pullout from the Kyoto accord marked the beginning of the Bush administration’s unilateralism.
Barack Obama, who took over from Bush in 2009, was quite committed to tackling climate change problems, as exemplified by his advocating a “Green New Deal” at the outset of his presidency. The pledges he exchanged last September with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China, for an early ratification of the Paris Agreement were instrumental in bringing the pact into force in the unusually short period of less than a year after it was adopted the COP 21 conference in Paris in December 2015.
The Paris Agreement was to come into effect when it has been ratified by at least 55 countries and when their combined emissions accounted for 55 percent or more of the global total. Since the U.S. and China together account for nearly 40 percent of the global emissions, the Obama-Xi agreement paved way for the deal to take effect smoothly.
In stark contrast, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump puts top priority on the economy and is deeply suspicious of climate change. He even tweeted that the problem is a hoax that had been created by China to weaken the U.S. industrial competitiveness. Cited as one of the incoming administration’s top priorities is the creation of jobs through the expansion of domestic energy industries such as coal, petroleum and shale oil/gas. Trump also blamed Obama for pushing his “Clean Power Plan,” which he says has devastated the U.S. energy industry relying on fossil fuels and caused millions of American workers to lose their jobs.
On Dec. 8, Trump tapped Scott Pruitt, attorney general of Oklahoma, as his administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt opposed every step the Obama administration took to combat climate change — even filing a lawsuit against the EPA — and is known as one of the foremost skeptics of climate change caused by the rising density of greenhouses gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere.
And on Dec. 13, Rex Tillerson, then the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., was nominated by Trump to serve as the next U.S. secretary of state. With a former oil tycoon serving as the top U.S. diplomat, all the efforts Obama made to fight climate change by reducing reliance on fossil fuels could come to naught. On the following day, it was announced that Trump had nominated to serve as the next secretary of energy Rick Perry, another leading figure among climate-change skeptics and former governor of Texas, the home of the shale oil and gas industry. As far as Trump’s appointments suggest, it is a near certainty that he will follow in Bush’s footsteps and pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement.
Of the two reasons that Bush cited for seceding from the Kyoto Protocol, the second had ceased to exist in the Paris Agreement, since it was signed by all parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the pact does not go so far as to rule out the possibility of doing harm to the U.S. economy.
Trump is a real estate tycoon who has had nothing to do with principles or ideologies, and has made every single decision on the logic of business — by weighing economic gains and losses. That tendency is likely to form the basis for his administration’s decision making. Fairly soon after his inauguration, he will decide whether or not the U.S. should break away from the Paris Agreement by weighing two factors: possible damage to the American economy caused by the implementation of Obama’s target of reducing U.S. emissions in 2025 by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels versus the political and economic losses that could result from antagonizing the European Union over secession from the Paris accord.
Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.
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