US withdrawal from Paris climate agreement

It came as no great surprise when President Trump finally announced his expected decision to withdraw the US from the historic Paris Agreement on 1 June 2017.

Having promised to take this step as one of the pillars of his presidential campaign on the basis that the Agreement unfairly penalised American competitiveness and jobs, Trump was always going to be bound to this commitment or risk appearing politically weak – even if it’s possible that withdrawal might not be completed before the next presidential election in November 2019.

The question also remains as to whether the president has the legal authority to withdraw the US unilaterally or whether he still requires the approval of the Senate. While the US constitution allows executive power to be exercised in the making of treaties (as President Obama did in the case of the Paris Agreement), there is no legal precedent for its use in the termination of such an accord.

However, the impact of Trump’s decision should be mitigated by the reiteration by Europe, China, India and Russia to uphold their pledges as part of the accord. More worrying would be the prospect of the US pulling out of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the treaty that underpins the Paris Agreement, and which it would be possible for the US to leave in less than a year.

The decision was also met with defiance at home as many US states, city mayors, institutions and multinationals lined up to reaffirm their commitment to press ahead with their own efforts to decarbonise the economy. While it may encourage Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to push ahead with his own agenda of repealing domestic legislation such as the US Clean Power Plan, it should not have any noticeable effect on support for renewable energy where much of the growth is driven by state rather than federal policy.

Furthermore, the renewable energy sector is now a major source of employment and job creation, as well as being increasingly competitive against fossil fuels as costs fall and dependence on subsidies decreases. In 2016, renewable power accounted for 777,000 jobs in the US – more than double the number employed by the coal power generation, oil and gas extraction and coal mining sectors combined.

Large sections of US industry have already seen the benefits of reducing their energy consumption and related carbon emissions and are unlikely to roll back their investment programmes in the aftermath of this action.

Meanwhile, even Trump’s own supporters are broadly supportive of the Paris Agreement, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. While US voters in general agreed by a margin of 5 to 1 that their country should be part of the process, around half of Trump voters (47%) said that the US should participate, compared with only 28% who said it should not.