2016 was a historic year in the world’s struggle to address climate change. The fine details of the Paris Agreement were hammered out, and, in November, it went into effect. Just days later, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and promised to pull his country out of the agreement.
The fact that the US and China were ready to come to the table in 2014 allowed the process of negotiating the Paris Agreement to begin, and President Obama’s enthusiasm for the project helped bring a deal to fruition. Now, under President-elect Trump, the US may do an about-face; the rest of the world must now plan ways to move ahead to address the climate threat without the support of the United States government.
Also in the closing months of 2016, scientists confirmed that the year would again break temperature records, topping 2015 to become warmest year on record, just as 2015 topped 2014. Set against this backdrop, 2017 looks to be another historic year in the international struggle against climate change.
Here are some stories to watch.
1. How will the Trump administration handle the Paris Climate Agreement?
Donald Trump campaigned on his plans to “cancel” US involvement in the deal, and, though the president-elect is notoriously unpredictable, his decision to nominate several opponents of climate action to his cabinet indicates that this campaign promise is likely one he intends to stick to. The Paris Agreement requires countries to honor their pledges to cut emissions for three years before withdrawing from the agreement, and the process of withdrawal will take several months more. That means that by the time a Trump administration is formally able to exit the agreement, the US may be within a year of electing another president who is more sympathetic to the urgency of climate science.
However, Trump’s administration may find ways to bypass the lengthy withdrawal process. One transition team source tells Reuters that the team is exploring ways to quit the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the legal arrangement that undergirds the Paris Agreement.
In the meantime, the Trump administration can simply ignore the US’s commitment under the deal to cut emissions and to provide money to help poor countries adapt to a warmer and more volatile planet. The US government is likely to quickly take steps after Trump’s inauguration to reverse Obama’s efforts to curb emissions, prioritizing actions such as lifting a moratorium on coal mining on public lands that Obama put in place last year.
2. How will other countries react to US inaction?
This was the big question weighing on the minds of many at the UN climate talks in Morocco this November. Though many of the world’s largest polluters promised to stay the course, it’s an open question whether, without the United States willing to do its part, other countries, in the years ahead, will be willing to do theirs. It would only take a few key countries to also decide to pull out of or ignore the deal for it to become meaningless.
China, the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases, is likely to pick up the mantel of global climate leader once the US drops it. The country’s efforts to cut emissions seem to be as much an effort to clear the skies over its smoggy cities as they are to address global climate change, and that self interest likely means that China’s leaders will remain committed to greening their country’s energy economy no matter what the US does. Just last week, China announced plans to get 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the end of this decade, a target it hopes to hit by investing $361 billion in nuclear and renewable energy. That’s more than the entire world spent on renewable energy (without nuclear) in 2015. 2017 will also see China roll out a nationwide carbon trading system of the sort that might prove informative to the rest of the world as it seeks new methods of tackling emissions. It’s important to note that China remains heavily reliant on coal; the industry has quite a bit of momentum after years of state support. But signs continue to point to a commitment on the part of China’s highest leaders to change course.
What other countries decide to do in response to US inaction is more of an open question. Large emitters like India, Brazil and the Russian Federation have, in the past, expressed a wariness toward an international deal to address climate change that doesn’t involve the US, the country that, in aggregate, has pumped the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the course of history. India in particular has advanced this point of view, arguing that while the US burned fossil fuels for more than a century without heed to their climate impact, India’s own industrial revolution is just getting underway. A third of the country’s 1.2 billion people remain without access to electricity — a sum equal to the total number of people that live in the United States. Why should India, the argument goes, make an effort to check its development, and the pollution that that development generates, if the US is not making an effort to check its own pollution?
The EU, the world’s third-largest emitter (behind China and the US) has historically been a leader on climate, and has been far more successful than the US at reducing its carbon emissions. Much of this work has been carried out through the EU’s governing bodies, which encourage member countries to develop plans to cut carbon pollution. Later this year, European Parliament will debate how the EU can achieve its goal under the Paris Agreement to cut emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
However, Europe may also waver in the years ahead. A populist anger is buoying right-wing candidates and causes in EU member countries, just as it contributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the US. The surprise outcome of the Brexit referendum showed the potency of this phenomenon. Some of these right-wing parties question the science of climate change — politicians from the UK Independence Party, the French National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party have all questioned humans’ role in climate change. But, perhaps more importantly, these right-wing populist movements are all deeply skeptical of entities that facilitate international cooperation, including the EU and the UN. Continued electoral victories for these forces in 2017 would not bode well for climate action.
3. How will corporations react?
With the US government set to pull out of international climate efforts, corporations will play more of a role in addressing climate change. They will also become more of a target for activists groups pushing sustainability.
In November, 400 companies wrote to Trump urging him not to pull out of the Paris Agreement. This appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears, but corporations recognize that promoting sustainability is good for their brand, and, in many cases, good for their business. Google, for instance, plans to run 100 percent of its operations on renewable energy by the end of 2017.
As Neil Bhatiya, a climate and energy analyst notes, even companies that are dependent on fossil fuels are acknowledging that their time is limited. Royal Dutch Shell expects demand for oil to peak within five years, and Saudi Arabia, which owns Saudi Aramco (at least until it finds a buyer), is moving to diversify its economy. Ironically, Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxonmobil and Trump’s secretary of state designate, is one of the few members of Trump’s team that has said openly that he accepts climate science and recognizes the need for a price on carbon — an announcement driven by Exxon’s business realities.
4. Finding new ways to cut emissions
Developed countries’ efforts to cut their climate footprint have traditionally focused on reducing reliance on power plants that burn fossil fuels, increasing vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and developing more energy-efficient cities, buildings and infrastructure.
These solutions apply less well to the developing world. But the Paris Agreement allows countries to choose how they’ll go about cutting emissions, giving developing countries flexibility. One program that takes advantage of this flexibility is the UN’s REDD+ program, which pays developing countries to preserve their forests, which pull carbon out of the atmosphere. In 2017, UN discussions of climate mitigation may see an increased focus on preventing deforestation.
Another solution emerging in 2017, Georgina Gustin reports for InsideClimate News, is to tackle the role of agriculture in climate change. Though the agricultural sector accounts for only 12 percent of emissions in developed countries, it accounts for more than a third of emissions in developing countries. Unlike deforestation, there is no UN program in place to encourage developing countries to reduce agricultural emissions, but with the Paris Agreement requiring emissions cuts, advocacy groups expect that 2017 will be the year that conversations around agricultural emissions begin to move center stage.
5. Will climate targets shift?
UN negotiations have, for years, revolved around the idea that in order to keep the world’s climate in a relatively safe balance, countries would have to cooperate to keep global warming from surpassing 2 degrees Celsius. Later research indicated that that target was in fact too high and that, to avoid tipping points beyond which the climate could not be put back in balance, the world would have to limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Both the 2 degree target and the more ambitious 1.5 degree target were written into the Paris Agreement.
…[T]he international target for climate change with a limit of 2 °C appears to be infeasible with reasonably accessible technologies — and this is the case even with very stringent and unrealistically ambitious abatement strategies. This is so because of the inertia of the climate system, of rapid projected economic growth in the near term,and of revisions in several elements of the model. A target of 2½ °C is technically feasible but would require extreme virtually universal global policy measures.
Given a Trump administration’s anticipated efforts to revive America’s coal industry and bolster other fossil fuels, and the relatively slow pass of emission-reduction around the world, 2017 will likely see intensified discussion over how the UN defines success in the fight against climate change.