The Paris Agreement: What damage did Trump do?

This week, the USA re-joined The Paris Agreement under the leadership of President Joe Biden; an internationally celebrated event for anyone who cares about the environment. Why is this one treaty so important, and what damage is there to undo? I’ll try to explain.

What is The Paris Agreement?

All I knew before this was that there was a global agreement and it was good for the environment. Factually, it’s a United Nations treaty to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement was signed in 2015 by 174 states and the European Union, but I later found out that countries only submitted their plans to reduce emissions in 2020. Participating countries also had to submit their plans for the worst-case scenario where global temperatures don’t stay within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. Essentially, what the hell do we do if the world gets too hot. There was also an option for countries to share how they will keep their emissions low into the future and consider what happens after 2030.

At the moment it sounds like a exclusive program for countries who can afford to implement changes, but the premise of the Paris Agreement relies on developed countries supporting developing countries financially. That way as many countries as possible can take part in the agreement. The downside is that nothing is legally enforced and relies on the enthusiasm and organisation of governments to protect the planet we live on.

It all sounds a bit flimsy, but it’s the urgency and the attitude to preserving the Earth that counts- isn’t it?

The Wrong Attitude to Climate Change

Despite it being a plan for countries to work together to cut greenhouse gas emissions and essentially save the planet from human destruction, Trump promptly declared the USA’s exit from the Paris Agreement. He based his decision on the immediate impact the agreement would have on the American people and who better to explain himself than Donald Trump himself:

As President, I can put no other consideration before the wellbeing of American citizens.  The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic productionNot only does this deal subject our citizens to harsh economic restrictions, it fails to live up to our environmental ideals.  As someone who cares deeply about the environment, which I do, I cannot in good conscience support a deal that punishes the United States — which is what it does -– the world’s leader in environmental protection, while imposing no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters.

Trump White House Archives, 1st June 2017

This is coming from a man leading the 2nd most polluting country in the world and 26th on the list of most environmentally friendly countries. The USA also happens to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world and previously pledged $3 billion to help developing countries reach their goals. Donald Trump withheld $2 billion of this and then refused to contribute anything in 2019.

The USA officially left the Paris Agreement at the beginning of November 2020, only to re-join it after the inauguration of President Joe Biden in late January 2021. That doesn’t mean that the USA is in the clear; devastating changes had already been made long before the exit.

One of these changes was to opt out of Obama’s Clean Power Plan in August 2018, with Trump commenting at a Shale Insight Conference on the move and adding boastful remarks about other environmental protection rules he had opted out of:

We cancelled the last administration’s so-called Clean Power Plan.  Sounds nice, but it wasn’t nice.  It was a disaster.  (Applause.)  Which would have cost Americans nearly $40 billion a year and caused electricity prices to soar to double digits, while cutting coal production by almost 250 million tons.

We repealed the Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule… It sounds so beautiful, and it was so bad… and was a backdoor attempt to destroy the American coal industry.

We revoked the ridiculous Waters of the United States rule. No longer will federal bureaucrats be allowed to micromanage every public pond and drainage ditch on private landWhen I did that, I had people in my office — I had miners and I had farmers and I had builders building homes… And almost all of them were crying.  They said, “Sir, you’ve given our life back to us.”

We’re opening federal lands and offshore areas for responsible oil and gas production.

…you’ve seen drilling permits increase by over 300 percent since I’ve been in office.  And we are issuing permits three times faster than when I first took office.  And that number is going up, and we’re doing it in a very environmental responsible way. 

We are streamlining the EPA’s oil and gas methane rule.

Trump White House Archives, October 23, 2019

An audience member subsequently boos at this revelation on methane and is removed by security personnel.

Luckily, the official exit from the Paris Agreement didn’t mean that the whole country stopped caring about the emissions goals; many states committed themselves to sticking with reducing emissions in line with previous aims. The pro-Paris Agreement states totalled 65% of the US population and their actions were predicted to contribute to a 25% reduction in the USA’s greenhouse gas emissions despite the views of their president.

The Right Attitude to Climate Change

President Joe Biden doesn’t just have to re-sign the agreement; his administration must also pledge to reach higher goals and make up for the relaxed attitude Trump’s administration held. This began in his first hours as leader of the free world as President Biden reinstated 100 environmental protection rules that Trump had thrown out of the window including those in the quote above.

After so much too-ing and fro-ing, it will be interesting to see if other countries will step into their climate goals now that a major player is back in business. Other countries had previously relaxed their efforts to reach emissions goals after 2017, but since the second biggest polluter officially decided to up their game, they might just sit up straighter and work a bit harder.

In the end, there might be hope for global temperatures to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels, but it’s going to take much more than making ambitious promises. A full audit of the way we live and work is well overdue, but we have to remember that we, the people, can’t make useful changes until governments put in the infrastructure to make environmental decisions affordable and accessible to everyone.

What do you think about the Paris Agreement? Is it binding enough to make real changes to greenhouse gas emissions? Comment below or tweet me @jenniefrench95.

More information about greenhouse gases can be found as an infographic.

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