Michael Howard, University of Maine. Originally published in Bangor Daily News July 19, 2017.
According to President Donald Trump, the 2016 Paris climate agreement favors China and India and unfairly disadvantages the United States. Notably, he objects to a reduction of coal use in the United States, while China and India continue to use and develop coal, and foreign aid to help developing countries shift to renewable energy.
In fact, the agreement does not mention coal at all. Each country sets its own emissions reduction targets and reaches them by various means. For example, the U.S. pledged to reduce carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The Obama administration aimed to achieve this goal with the Clean Power Plan, among other measures. Some prominent Republicans have proposed reaching the same target by means of a carbon fee and dividend.
Although India plans to increase coal production, it is slowing coal development and may reach targets for nonrenewable energy ahead of schedule. China stopped construction of 103 new coal-fired plants and has cut coal use three years in a row and may even have peaked its CO2 emissions ahead of schedule.
Trump’s factual errors aside, there is nothing in the Paris agreement that is unfair to the United States. By any reasonable measure of fairness, U.S. pledges under the Paris agreement do not go far enough.
Note first that global warming needs to be kept below 2 degrees Centigrade, or there will be dangerous risk of catastrophic climate change. Staying below this mark requires the entire world to adhere to a carbon budget of about 1 trillion tons of carbon added to the atmosphere. Over half of this had been used up by 2011, and at current emission levels it will be exhausted in less than 30 years.
What is a fair allocation of this carbon budget? Although China now is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. still emits far more per capita, and it has put more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other country. If, at the start of the industrial revolution, the U.S. had been allocated an equal per capita share of emission rights, “ Americans would have used up their quota in 1944,” according to The New York Times. So we now emit carbon using other people’s shares.
Even if responsibility for past emissions is counted only since 1990, the year when nations officially recognized global warming as a problem, the U.S. would need to reduce its emissions by 90 percent below 1990 levels by 2025. More realistically, the U.S. could double its Paris pledge and pay developing countries for the use of their quotas by contributing substantially to the Green Climate Fund. All this accords with the principle that the polluter pays.
In addition to taking responsibility for our pollution, we need to take into account a right to development. Countries like India should not be forced to choose between climate change and poverty. If there is a limited carbon budget, countries that need it to get out of poverty should have priority over countries that want it for things that they could live decently without, like coal-fired power plants and gas-guzzling SUVs.
If India is expected to reduce its emissions — arguably coal use should be phased out everywhere — it should be compensated for foregoing its per capita share of the carbon budget, by getting aid for the transition to renewable energy.
The Paris agreement does not demand enough from the developed world. But it is a start. Luckily, compliance is not only a matter of fairness, it is in the self-interest of every country in the world to avoid climate change and thereby also avoid extreme storms and droughts, crop failures, ocean acidification, sea level rise, millions of climate refugees, violence and war. The crisis in Syria is closely related to climate change.
On the positive side, the shift to renewable energy, which could be encouraged with a carbon fee, will generate millions of new jobs. So Trump’s defection will not stop the efforts of more enlightened leaders.
These leaders include mayors from 331 municipalities (including Portland), representing 65 million Americans in 44 states, who have promised to meet the U.S.’s Paris pledges, despite Trump’s announced pullout. Concerned citizens, dismayed by what is happening in Washington, might focus their efforts at the local or state level, or get their legislators in Washington to join the small but growing bipartisan group that recognizes that climate change is a problem and that something must be done about it.
As the mayors say, “The world cannot wait, and neither will we.”
Michael Howard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine in Orono. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.