The United States could start the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change as early as this week. But some experts believe the alternative that President Donald Trump is considering – simply downgrading the country’s climate targets – could ultimately prove even more damaging for the environment.
During his campaign, Trump said he planned to “cancel” the agreement, because it would cripple the domestic energy industry and kill thousands of jobs. But his administration is reportedly divided between the two options.
On April 30, Trump told a rally in Pennsylvania that he would make a decision within two weeks.
"From an environmental perspective I'd feel more worried about a downward adjustment of the targets," said Michael Traut, a senior researcher at the Tyndall Center for climate change research in Manchester, England. "There is the risk of rendering the Paris Agreement almost meaningless."
Traut and others said scaling back US targets to reduce emissions could set a precedent for other countries to do the same. The agreement is currently little more than a blueprint designed to accommodate the different needs of the 192 states that have signed on, along with the 28 members of the European Union.
While its flexibility was key to get on board a greater number of countries, it is also its main vulnerability. A number of key points are still under discussion, from transparency to a comprehensive set of rules for the implementation of the pledges, known as Nationally Determined Contributions. This lack of detail leaves plenty of room for interpretation and could lead other nations to backtrack.
While a full US withdrawal would be expected to spark a severe diplomatic backlash around the world, and would likely lead to retaliatory measures such as tariffs on carbon, tweaking the pledges would be a way of undermining the process more subtly.
"It's in this sense that staying in and misbehaving has the potential of being worse than a clean pullout," said Gabriel Marty, a former negotiator for France’s presidency of the 21st Conference of Parties, which is the group of nations that hammered out the deal signed in Paris in 2015 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
"I can speak from experience that the process is quite fragile, and the critical consensus built during COP21 will not resist long if the US wants to throw a wrench in the negotiations,” he said.
On Monday, a group of free-market lobbyists under the umbrella the “Competitive Enterprise Institute released a letter urging Trump to take action against the agreement. They also suggested exploring an even more dramatic action – they want him to withdraw completely from the UNFCC.
The “nuclear option,” as it has become known, may be less likely than withdrawing from the Paris Agreement or scaling back commitments, but it could happen.
Parsing the language
The worldwide debate about a country’s rights to modify its commitments under the Paris Agreement stems from Article 4.11, a short but pivotal paragraph that states: "A Party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition."
According to some legal experts in the US, this means that a country may choose to modify or even scale down its emission reduction targets without breaching the agreement's principles.
However, watering down ambitions would also set a dangerous precedent. The sum of the current global pledges goes nowhere near keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2020, so the agreement's architects enshrined a so-called “ratchet mechanism” in the text. This clause underpins a stock-taking system meant to monitor progress and encourage countries to increase their commitment every five years.
"If the US stays in but successfully challenges the 'no backsliding' provision, it could make it very difficult for the stocktaking process to work efficiently," said Marty.
Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow with the climate change group of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, echoed Marty's views: "I welcome the US leaving us. It will give us impetus. The very fact that [Trump] is questioning climate change has unleashed an enormous amount of energy from governors of states, to mayors, to scientists.”
Huq told IRIN that should Trump’s administration decide to stay in the agreement, the US could "cause us more problems in the long run. Let them leave us and go in the opposite direction and let us move forward together.”
Having been involved in the negotiation process for decades, the Bangladeshi scientist is now convinced that the winds of climate action have changed, and the real impact is happening at regional and city levels. Clean energy is taking off in an increasing number of US states, while countries such as China and India are investing heavily in solar and wind capacity.
Huq said a US withdrawal would be preferable, because it would create a leadership gap that others could fill, while Trump “can only hinder progress at a federal level, which actually in the US context is very limited.”
Still others worry about the impact of a full US withdrawal. While climate action is spreading and the business opportunities of a low carbon economy are attracting a growing number of investors, the Paris Agreement remains a crucial tool to plan for the long term. It provides stability and a framework for countries to work together.
"How would other countries respond to a US pullout? That's a very open question," acknowledged Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. "It could trigger a dreadful domino effect."
Using Article 4.11 to relax the targets could have dangerous ramifications too, he said: "Would that lead to allowing other countries to ratchet down their own ambitions? Absolutely. It absolutely provides cover, provides legal justification."
The vast majority of developing countries are already struggling with their climate commitments. Many pledges are tied to foreign support, which could fall short if Trump follows up on his promise to slash the US aid budget. Governments in Africa and Asia that are still counting on coal-fired power plants to reduce energy poverty would likely welcome the opportunity to water down their pledges.
That – along with the US reneging on its commitments – could prove disastrous. Climate Advisers, a consultancy group, estimates that Trump’s policies alone could pump more than half a gigaton of additional climate pollution into the atmosphere by 2025.
Lou del Bello is a freelance journalist and regular IRIN contributor