Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Will US regain its lead on climate change?

Posted by butalidnl on 5 August 2017

I came across an article that asked whether the Trump boycott of the Paris Climate Accord would result in a temporary loss of the US’ lead on climate change. This is based on the assumption that when the US rejoins ‘Paris’, it will resume its lead role.  This is strange, because the US had not been leading the fight against climate change.  Instead, the US had led in causing climate change, since it was the largest emitter of carbon dioxide (it has recently been overtaken by China).

Obama’s about-turn on climate change helped climate negotiators in Paris in 2015 to finally come to an agreement.  Numerous previous international conferences on the climate had failed because of the opposition of the US, China and India.  The US may be said to have ‘led’ the movement against climate change from 2015 to 2017, only because it had stopped its opposition to a multilateral agreement. But this ‘lead’ is rather dubious.

The US had not signed the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, making it the only OECD country not to do so.  This, after it had done its best to water down the agreement during the Kyoto conference itself.  Since then, the US had lagged behind the rest of the OECD in terms of cutting its carbon dioxide emissions.

Paris
In 2015, US president Obama not only reversed the US’ opposition to multilateral environmental agreements; he helped to convince India and China to also do so.  Both China and India signed the Paris Agreement which allowed them to continue increasing carbon emissions for a few years, before they would then be expected to reduce them, allowing them to continue economic development.

Both India and China are now enthusiastic supporters of the Paris Accord. They are expected to sharpen their carbon dioxide emission goals during the 2019 follow-up conference.  They have reaffirmed their commitment to ‘Paris’ even after the Trump withdrawal.

Backward
The US stands alone in its perception that it is advanced when it comes to climate policy. Many of its top politicians (mostly Republican) are climate-change deniers, i.e. they don’t believe that human activity is the main contributor to global warming. Vice President Pence recently stated this explicitly.  And climate change consciousness is not really internalized by even its most staunch advocates. For example, Al Gore resorts to offsets (i.e. buying renewable energy elsewhere to offset his personal carbon output),  instead of directly reducing his own carbon output.

US transportation is ‘dirty’. Medium- and long-distance travel is almost exclusively done by plane; transport by goods is mostly by truck.  The US train system is  backward.
US auto emission standards are modest when compared with that of the EU. The EU emission target for 2021 is 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer; the US aims to attain this only by 2024.  And the emission standards for SUVs and pick-up trucks, which are used by a lot of people in the US, are significantly higher. Now, the Trump administration wants to scrap emission standards altogether.

Americans think that their country is advanced in terms of climate change, partly because some American companies have advanced products that address climate change issues.  For example, Tesla has its car; but I think this will more likely sell better in other countries, rather than in  the US.

Germany leads in terms of deployed solar panels per capita; while China leads in manufacturing solar panels, and in the use of solar heating. Iceland leads in the use of geothermal energy. Sweden leads in terms of recycling; more recycling means that energy that is used to process raw materials (and thus, lower carbon dioxide production). Norway leads in the (per capita) use of electric cars.

No single country leads the campaign against climate change. Each country strives to reduce their carbon dioxide output following a specific path based on their situation. Even the US, which has withdrawn from ‘Paris’ contributes in its own way.
The US will rejoin ‘Paris’ a few years from now. But it will not lead the movement.

 

 

 

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