President Donald Trump’s announcement on June 1, 2017 that the United States would not adhere to the provisions of the Paris Agreement entered into by 195 countries in 2015 did not come as a total surprise. This was one of the election promises Trump made to his support base in the rust belt. He had also given ample indications of what his decision was likely to be during his recent visit to Europe for the G7 meeting. All the other six member-states of G7 grouping, as well as the European Union, urged him not to walk out of the pact. Even the Pope implored Trump to abide by the provisions of the Agreement.
Several of Trump’s actions over the last four months since taking over as president prove that he is not convinced about the reality of climate change. He appointed Scott Pruitt, a known climate change skeptic, to the position of administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and signed an executive order reversing the Clean Power Plan, which had required states to regulate power plants. This order undid a key part of the Obama administration’s efforts to tackle global warming. Trump did this ostensibly to ensure energy independence and protect American jobs.
In his announcement on June 1, Trump named India and China among the key reasons for his decision to pull out of the Agreement. He said that India would get ”billions and billions and billions” of dollars for meeting its commitment under the Paris Agreement while it, along with Beijing, would double its coal-fired power plants in the years to come, gaining a financial advantage over the United States.
Trump’s decision to dump the Paris Agreement means that the United States will no longer be bound by commitments assumed under the Paris Agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, share climate friendly technologies with developing countries, and contribute financial resources to enable them undertake measures to slow down or reduce their emissions and also to adapt to the impact of climate change.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord provoked anger and condemnation from world leaders and heads of industry. It drew strong criticism and opprobrium both within the United States and abroad, with world and local leaders pledging their support for the accord regardless of Washington’s withdrawal.
The unexpected fallout of Trump’s declaration was that all countries who were once skeptical and reluctant to join the Agreement in 2015, because of its departure from the earlier achieved consensus on equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) as enshrined in the Rio and Kyoto Protocols, fell solidly behind the pact, reaffirming their determination and commitment to fully abide by the provisions of the Agreement.
In all this drama, which has been keeping countries around the world spell-bound, it would appear that it is not the environment or the climate that could be the biggest loser. The biggest loser is likely to be the United States, as its leadership and credibility has been severely dented and eroded in front of the international community. This issue had presented itself as a critical opportunity for Trump to redeem his reputation and global standing. He has frittered it away to great damage to himself and his country. The biggest winner could possibly be China, as Trump has vacated space and created a vacuum for Beijing to step into without any conflict or tussle. In hindsight this decision will be seen as one of the historic blunders or turning points in the cataclysmic transformation in geopolitics of today.
Meanwhile, India has declared at the highest level that it remains committed to the Paris Agreement regardless of what other countries do. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his interactions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said that the Paris Climate Change Agreement is a shared legacy of the world and it will benefit future generations. Modi pledged to go “above and beyond” the accord to combat climate change. Writing on his official Twitter account he said: “[The] Paris Agreement reflects our duty toward protecting the Earth and our natural resources. For us, this is an article of faith.” Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 2, Modi said that India is committed to the Paris accord irrespective of the course chosen by other countries. Replying to a question, he quoted the ancient Indian Vedas to say that harming the environment is a crime. Modi termed it as an “immoral and criminal act” to spoil the environment for future generations.
India also dismissed Trump’s charge that it signed the Paris climate accord to get billions of dollars from developed nations. Addressing a press conference on June 5 to delineate achievements of her Ministry over the last year, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj termed as “completely untrue” the allegations that either India had succumbed to pressure to join the Paris Accord or it had joined because of greed. Swaraj rebutted Trump’s charge, saying that “India signed the Paris Agreement because of Indian culture and ethos and not under duress or out of greed.”
Trump has said the United States would like to renegotiate the agreement so that it better caters to U.S. interests. Several countries including Germany, France, Italy, and others have stated that no renegotiation will take place and that the Agreement will stand as it is. Fresh negotiations could unravel the delicate compromise arrived at after often complex negotiations. India should also strongly oppose re-opening the text.
Some analysts in India have stated that we should support Trump in renegotiation of the accord. This, they argue, will help us to strengthen our ties with him and could give us benefits in other areas like H1B visas, the fight against terrorism from Pakistan etc. I don’t subscribe to this view. This will be seen as an opportunistic and would strain India’s relations with the rest of the world. India today stands on the threshold of leadership in several areas, including environmental protection, economic development, and opposing terrorism. We need the support and cooperation of other countries to realize our objectives. Standing by the Paris Accord fulfills moral, ethical, and pragmatic aspects of our foreign policy. Moreover, Trump is a mercurial and unpredictable leader. We cannot be certain that he will recognize the favor being done to him if we were to support him on the renegotiation issue. He might get the mistaken impression that he has been able to cow down India with his bluster and has succeeded in forcing it to change its position. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Trump might hence try to use similar methods in future when issues of disagreement between India and the United States crop up, as they are bound to in the coming years.
In addition, India should firmly communicate to the U.S. administration that all of India’s commitments, including generating 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022, producing 40 percent of India’s energy needs by renewable means by 2030, and increasing energy efficiency of the Indian economy by 33-35 percent per unit of GDP from the level in 2005, will be achieved on a voluntary basis. It appears likely that India will be able to achieve these targets well before 2030. It will be able to do much better if it receives adequate financial assistance and technological support from the developed world.
India should continue to observe all provisions of the Paris Accord in letter and in spirit. Since it is a Framework Agreement, further negotiations to put flesh on the bones will need to be undertaken. It would be useful if the United States is not a part of these negotiations. Otherwise commitments will get diluted to the lowest common denominator. India should try to include provisions for equity, CBDR, climate justice, and transparency and also include the need for developed countries to provide capital and technology to developing ones.
Trump’s decision has provided a unique opportunity for India to cement ties with countries like Germany, France, the U.K., Japan, Italy, Russia, Australia, and also with China. It was indeed serendipitous that Modi was travelling to four significant European nations when Trump made this announcement. Modi was able to reaffirm India’s commitment and leadership on this issue on global platforms. India should try to build a loose coalition of middle-power countries with similar interests to ensure that a multipolar world emerges even as the United States becomes more isolationist.
Ashok Sajjanhar is a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, as also as Secretary/Principal Executive Officer of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, an autonomous organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs. He has held several significant positions in Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Tehran and Dhaka.