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We won't always have Paris

The climate pact can just about cope without Donald Trump's America, say its supporters. Others aren’t so sanguine

The US government's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2019—now confirmed in writing to the UN—dismayed its partners. Many feared that if the world's biggest economy was prepared to welch on its commitments, others would too, gutting the Paris deal of its ambition to achieve net zero emissions by the second half of the century.

Early reactions from around the world, though, suggest broad and lasting support for Paris. Other signatories—Syria and Nicaragua were the only two countries not to sign up—still support the goals of Paris, and are prepared to leave the US behind.

It's not clear yet if this resilient attitude will translate into action. Paris only takes effect from 2021, and many practical decisions must be taken before then. That uncertainty is worrying for the deal's advocates. But there's also optimism that Paris will cope without Trump's America.

"Trump's decision to leave the Paris Agreement has had the unintended consequence of triggering greater ambition elsewhere, but also within his own country," says Gebru Jember Endalew, the chair of the Least Developed Countries group at the UN climate talks. "It created a re-affirmation of the Paris Agreement. Even states within the US are committed, as is the private sector."

Despite the White House's decision, thirteen US states have announced their intention to subscribe to the Paris goals. Some of the largest US industrial firms have said they will target the same goals.

Beyond the US, there has been a lot of effort to support the Paris Agreement at a country level, even though doubts have started to creep into some quarters.

"Outside the [UN] process you'll see coalitions emerging, both within the G20 and within other multilateral fora such as Asia-Pacific and Mercosur to promote the Paris Agreement and to make sure it is more integrated within their economies," says Jeff Swartz, managing director at the International Emissions Trading Association and a long-time participant in the UN talks.

"But even within these groups the countries aren't all aligned," he cautions. "Countries such as Malaysia or Bolivia are not entirely supportive of Paris's goals and may slow things down."

Swartz also noted some signs that climate is no longer the political priority it was in 2015. "Japan's response to Trump's withdrawal from Paris has been very quiet, because Japanese industry has been putting a lot of pressure on the government to soften its targets and not to press for a specific goal," Swartz he says. "They're concerned with competitiveness with trading partners who don't have national climate goals."

Financial pressures

The US withdrawal also worsens some of the problems that have dogged the climate fight for years. One of the biggest is financial. Ever since the Copenhagen summit of 2009, nations have been working to build up a giant fund to assist poorer nations to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Green Climate Fund was folded into the Paris agreement.

The fund, which will also "mobilise" private-sector contributions, is planned to reach $100bn a year by 2020, and the world's wealthiest country—and one of its biggest emitters—was expected to be a prominent supporter. But on 1 June, Trump announced that the US would stop contributing, leaving the rest of the world with a significant gap.

The GCF has so far accumulated $10.3bn, far short of the planned 2020 annual contributions, and while the US had pledged a total of $3bn under President Obama, only a third had been delivered by the time Trump assumed office.

"There is already a significant short-fall, even with the full transfer of the pledged US money," Endelaw said. "We have a big gap in funding to implement the current set of nationally determined contributions."

According to Swartz, the most critical impact of the US move will be felt in climate diplomacy and is a direct result of Trump's domestic agenda. "The reduction in funding for the US State Department will potentially cost the world a lot more than the loss of US contributions to the Green Climate Fund," he says.

Under Obama, State Department officials and diplomats brought significant pressure to bear on other countries to sign up to ambitious climate goals. The cutbacks to the State Department budget announced by Trump, in tandem with his climate change scepticism, means strong American support for a meaningful agreement has been removed, Swartz says.

Without that pressure, even the most pro-climate of countries may start to feel it's time to tone down their actions, he says. "Those countries that are run by pro-climate action politicians—France, Canada and South Korea, for example—are facing a lot of pressure from their domestic industrial sectors not to go too far. At the end of the day, their industry needs to remain competitive."

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