Renewable Energy

Even without the US, the Paris climate agreement can succeed where its predecessor failed

Key Points
  • The Paris accord can go on to succeed even without the U.S., experts told CNBC, because of the climate treaty's differences with its predecessor and growing concerns about the threat of climate change.
  • "The Paris accord was designed to address the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol," said Chris Field, the director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

President Donald Trump's decision last year to withdraw from the Paris climate accord is reminiscent of the events that led to the downfall of its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol.

But that might be where the similarities end.

The Kyoto Protocol was an international framework that aimed to set internationally binding emissions reduction targets. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty, however, and the country formally withdrew in 2001.

While countries remained in the Kyoto Protocol without the U.S., commitment to the treaty began wavering and Canada withdrew in 2011, saving the country $14 billion in penalties in the process. Without the two largest carbon dioxide emitters — the U.S. and China — in the treaty, any progress made by the remaining countries was less significant on a global scale.

Despite how that turned out, the Paris accord can go on to succeed even without the U.S., experts told CNBC. That's because of the intrinsic difference between the two climate treaties and the growing concerns about the threat of climate change.

The Eiffel Tower in the colors of the new summit on the climate organized by French President Emmanuel Macron on December 12, 2017.
Thierry Le Fouille | SOPA Images | Getty Images

"The Paris accord was designed to address the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol," explained Chris Field, the director of Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Developed with a loose-fitting framework, the accord allows individual countries to independently evolve and adjust their climatic strategies. But, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, there are no legally binding terms in the Paris agreement.

"Almost every country had agreed to the creation of another climate agreement after the Kyoto Protocol failed, and the equal input in the agreement provides a sense of fairness," Field said.

The difference, according to the Stanford professor, is the willingness of the countries to participate in the Paris accord — which is a wholly voluntary agreement. "The signatories in the agreement are there voluntarily, and this shows that they are committed in fighting climate change, as opposed to the Kyoto Protocol," Field said.

The director of the World Resources Institute's International Climate Initiative, David Waskow, agreed that commitment to the Paris accord remains high.

"It's been very clear that other countries are extremely committed to the accord," Waskow said. "Developed countries have repeatedly stated their commitment to the agreement even after President Trump's announcement, as have major developing countries such as China and India."

Moreover, the internal debate in the U.S. will also be important to the success of the Paris accord, Field said.

"Although the national government has officially withdrawn from the agreement, individual states and major companies in America can still act independently to help achieve the initial goals that the U.S. has set," Field said.

Many of America's biggest companies, such as Apple and Exxon Mobil, have publicly stated their support for the U.S. to remain in the treaty.

At least 20 states have also pledged to continue their support for the accord and to uphold climatic strategies that will keep them on track to meet the Paris goals.

Waskow also said he believes Trump is missing out on the economic benefits that climate action can bring.

"As countries, along with some American businesses and states, have stated their strong support for the vision of the Paris accord, Trump has become a climate loner," Waskow said. "The Trump vision is one that would result in missing the enormous economic boon from renewable energy and sustainable transportation."

For his part, the U.S. president cited what he characterized as "draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes" in a White House statement accompanying his decision to formally withdraw the U.S. from the non-binding and penalty-free agreement.

In the statement, Trump argued that the accord was unfair on the U.S., would lead to a loss of millions of jobs, and cost the economy approximately $3 trillion in GDP. The president also said positive effects of the Paris agreement would be minimal:

Even if the Paris agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree — think of that; this much — Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny, tiny amount. In fact, 14 days of carbon emissions from China alone would wipe out the gains from America — and this is an incredible statistic — would totally wipe out the gains from America's expected reductions in the year 2030, after we have had to spend billions and billions of dollars, lost jobs, closed factories, and suffered much higher energy costs for our businesses and for our homes.