Climate Negotiator Contemplates Future of Paris Agreement Without the U.S.

2020 will be a crucial year for the Paris Agreement. An architect of the climate process considers the implications of the U.S. presidential election, and what might be accomplished in the months ahead.

In November of this year the 195 countries that are part of the Paris Climate process will hold their annual summit in Glasgow, Scotland. At the talks, countries are expected to announce more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets. The new targets will come in response to recent reports from the UN and others that highlight both the dangers of a warming climate, and the inadequacy of current efforts to keep warming to a minimum.

Yet concern is growing over whether the vital goals of the Glasgow conference can be met.  Recently, at the COP25 summit in Madrid in December, countries remained far apart on key rules to guide implementation of the Paris Agreement going forward. What’s more, 2020 could prove to be a year of climate limbo, as the world awaits the outcome of the U.S. presidential election and whether the U.S. will return to the Paris process and resume a leadership role.

Andrew Light, an architect of the U.S. involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement, talks about the current status of the Paris climate process, and what we might expect as 2020 unfolds.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. In November of this year, the 195 countries that are part of the Paris Climate Process will hold their annual summit in Glasgow, Scotland. At the talks, countries are expected to announce more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets. The new targets will come in the wake of recent reports from the U.N. and others that highlight both the dangers of a warming climate and the inadequacy of current efforts to keep warming to a minimum. Yet concern is rising over whether the vital goals of the Glasgow conference can be met. Recently at the COP25 summit in Madrid in December, countries remained far apart on a few key rules to guide implementation of the Paris Agreement going forward. What’s more, 2020 could prove to be a year of climate limbo, as the world awaits the outcome of the U.S. presidential election that will likely determine whether the United States returns to the Paris Process and resumes a leadership role in it.

Here to talk about the current status of the Paris Climate Process and what we might expect as 2020 unfolds, is Andrew Light. Andrew is a Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Global Climate Program at the World Resources Institute and a university professor at George Mason University. Andrew also formerly worked for the U.S. State Department, where he served on the Senior Strategy Team for U.N. Climate Negotiations and U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement. Andrew, welcome back to the podcast.

Andrew Light: Thank you, Andy. It’s great to be back.

Stone: Andrew, you were last on the podcast two years ago, and in the time since, two major meetings of the Paris Climate Process have taken place, one in Poland in 2018 and just last December, the most recent meeting in Madrid. What were the open issues two years ago that the most recent meetings intended to address?

Light: Basically two buckets of issues had to be addressed this year. One goes by the term of “finishing the rule book,” and that’s kind of a collective term that we use for all of the different rules and procedures and stuff to make it possible to implement the various articles under the Paris Agreement. So there’s an article on transparency. There’s an article on forests. There was an article on adaptation, and kind of on and on — finance and other things. And so the Paris Agreement goes so far to sort of outlining where we were and how we settled the negotiations in 2015, but there were details that needed to be fleshed out.

The other big bucket was basically sending some kind of signal to countries that this is the first year under the Paris Agreement where they should look to enhance their initial commitments into the Paris Agreement. So the Paris Agreement has these ongoing cycles of commitments to achieve the ultimate temperature goals under Paris. 2020 is the first year when parties are expected to enhance their original commitments under Paris, so we will get closer to meeting those temperature goals under the agreement.

Stone: Let me stop you here and ask a question. The Paris Agreement has already been in effect for several years, four years or so. How is it possible that it has been in effect for four years without the rules already in place?

Light: Well, that’s a great question, and effectively what happened was when we finished the Paris Agreement in 2015, it’s really a very detailed — think of it as a very detailed outline of what a new global regime on dealing with climate change is going to work and how countries are going to report to the Framework Convention on Climate Change and to the other parties entered into the Paris Agreement that they are meeting their commitments under Paris and then setting up all these mechanisms to ratchet up those commitments in due time.

You’ve only got two weeks to finish those negotiations during any given year. We got sort of the basis of it done in 2015, but there are these details. And so the agreement — and this is true for just about every other international agreement — allows for a period of a few years to fill in the gaps and the procedures on that. Different working groups were formed on different pillars of the Paris Agreement that were led usually by some combination of a developed country and a developing country to work through and negotiate with parties the details of that. It’s pretty typical. It is a long process. And actually Poland was really successful in finishing almost all of it. There were just a couple of things that were left over to finish this past year in Madrid. Most of it actually was done in a very complicated set of negotiations last year in Poland.

Stone: Now those couple of things that you just alluded to related specifically to the rules around carbon markets, as well as something called “loss and damage.” What are these specifically, and why have they proven so hard to agree upon?

Light: Those were definitely two of the remaining sticking points. The rules around carbon markets is basically this: It’s already the case that there are lots of countries that are engaged in some kind of transboundary carbon trading right now, and it has been going on for decades where one country will set a target for reducing its emissions into the future. If it’s a country which is a wealthy, developed country, let’s say like New Zealand, it might want to pay for cheaper reductions in another country, let’s say a forest-rich country like Indonesia or Brazil or something like that. And they will pay to sequester carbon by reducing deforestation or increasing afforestation, by planting trees, engaging in some kind of restoration program. And that can be cheaper than the cost-reducing emissions at home. And that’s allowable under these international trading systems.

So what happened in Paris is that we created finally a kind of internationally recognized credit for that trading system, to try to harmonize that process around the world. Essentially what happened was one of the biggest recipients of these kinds of credits, Brazil, came forward and essentially wanted to adopt rules which would allow for double counting. So let’s say New Zealand pays Brazil to save some part of the Amazon rainforest and buys credits to do that, which they then register internationally as how they’re going to hit their target under the Paris Agreement. Brazil wanted to say in addition to crediting New Zealand, you should also credit us for reducing our emissions. And that would be a form of double counting, and that basically undermines the whole point of carbon trading in these kinds of offset markets. So that’s a problem.

The loss and damage stuff is a little bit more complicated, but briefly, this is a kind of a new, really interesting area of climate negotiations that emerged around 2010, 2011. And it deals with climate impacts that you can’t adapt to. So two big buckets of it are things like slow-onset events like rising sea levels, where there’s just so much you can do in terms of building up walls and building up infrastructure to withstand rising sea levels, especially in these small island developing states, like let’s say the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. And then there are extreme events that we can imagine, like the devastating hurricane that hit Bermuda this past season in the fall. Imagine Bermuda gets two or three more of those, and it might be just impossible to imagine rebuilding infrastructure like they had before to withstand those kinds of impacts. And that counts as something that, in principle, just the economic hurdles are too high to really adapt to. So this is called “loss and damage,” so the kinds of losses to climate that you can’t adapt to.

One of the things that has been a sticking point on that has been whether or not we should create a special bucket of finance for loss and damage. While we did create, as part of the process leading up to the Paris Agreement and creating the Paris Agreement, a new system that deals with loss and damage and a new cooperative effort to try to come up with lots of measures to try to mitigate these kinds of loss and damage impacts before they happen, and then try to help countries after they happen by creating, for example, pooled insurance and stuff like that. There’s no dedicated bucket of money out there to help countries on that. And so the parties kind of ran aground in Madrid on whether or not they were going to be able to create some kind of dedicated form of finance for loss and damage.

Stone: Do you see these two issues being resolved before Glasgow, and can Glasgow move forward meaningfully without these things being resolved? Particularly on the carbon trading side, my understanding is that many of the countries — some half or more — plan to use carbon markets really as a central part of their strategy to reach their carbon reduction goals.

Light: Well, I think the pressure will be on. One of the things we saw was on the last Saturday of the Madrid meeting, after you’d gone through the full two weeks of negotiations, 32 countries came forward with a joint statement on how firm they’re going to stand and would resist any kind of diminishment of the rigor and robustness of the rules around carbon trading, at least for the Paris Agreement. So I think they’ve drawn a hard red line, and I think that the pressure is going to be on Brazil and the other countries that were supporting them in these positions — like Australia was supporting Brazil in Madrid. I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to withstand that kind of international pressure. So I’m hopeful that by the time we get to Glasgow, that will be resolved.

On the other hand, though, keep in mind that carbon trading and offset programs will continue, regardless of what happens with this particular part of the Paris Agreement. It’s just they won’t be internationally harmonized. But I think that those markets are still big. They’re still growing. They’re still important. And as you said, many countries are going to rely on them in order to meet their commitments under Paris. It would be better if they were all operated the same way. If they don’t for some amount of time, though, I think that they can still continue in trying to develop those different initiatives.

Stone: Okay, Andrew. So Paris has been in effect for four years now. How well have countries done generally in meeting their initial commitments to reduce carbon emissions?

Light: Let’s just take a few countries. China is on track to meet its initial commitments under the Paris Agreement. So is India. The E.U. is certainly on track. Canada is going to have a hard time to meet its targets, because initially their target was put forth by the previous Conservative government. And then right before Paris, Justin Trudeau was elected. He kind of let stand the Canadian target for 2030, but he has now initiated a national carbon pricing scheme which I think is going to get them there.

So countries are doing pretty well, but those collective commitments, however, are not sufficient to meet the ultimate temperature goals under Paris — that 2-degree and making every effort to hit 1.5 C degrees. And that’s why you need this constant ambition to come forward. And I’d say in that respect, the outcome in Madrid was okay. I think the language was good that came out of Madrid, in terms of encouraging countries to come forward and enhance their ambition. The Secretary of the Framework Convention just released new numbers, and right now it looks like while only two countries have actually submitted their new enhanced target under the Paris agreement in 2020, 108 have stated their intention to enhance their ambition. We think these are good promises. This will happen. They represent just over 15% of global emissions, and 37 other countries have stated their intention to update their commitments in 2020.

But some of the biggest emitters are not included there, like the United States, obviously, because the United States is going to pull out of the Paris Agreement. But also we don’t know yet what China or India are going to do in terms of reducing their emissions. Russia is a huge question mark. We don’t know what Russia is going to do. Canada has not announced any kind of intention. Brazil has not. Australia has not. So there are big countries out there in your top ten, twenty emitters who have not yet said what they’re going to do. And that’s what everyone is going to be watching between now and Glasgow.

Stone: You were a part of the State Department team that negotiated U.S. involvement in the Paris Agreement back in 2015. What was your reaction when President Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from Paris?

Light: Well, I expected it. It was nonetheless a really bad day, and I think it was a bad day for the American people. It was a bad day for the world. You know, I have joked, but it’s not so far from the truth that I think I worked about as hard outside of government trying to keep the Trump Administration from leaving the Paris Agreement as I did working to create the Paris Agreement when I was part of the Obama administration. There was a huge effort to just figure out any way you could try to get to President Trump between the inauguration in 2017 and June 1, 2017 when he made the announcement in the Rose Garden that he was going to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. So it was a blow.

The interesting thing, though, I’ve got to say is that immediately two things happened. For reasons that are still a little bit obscure, the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement according to the rules of the Paris Agreement. And the rules of the Paris Agreement are that you can’t just get out of the Paris Agreement by just saying, “We’re out.” It’s a 3 + 1 system. So essentially the Paris Agreement says, “No country can withdraw from the Agreement for the first three years after the Agreement enters into force.” And “entry into force” is when you go from the negotiating phase, which I was part of, to the agreement goes back to national capitals, and they use whatever their mechanism is for joining an international agreement to do it. They’ll go to parliament, or the president signs it, or whatever.

So no country can leave in the first three years, and that’s actually pretty typical in agreements like this, because it’s kind of a cooling off period, because it can get — as it was in Paris. There were some really critical, very tense moments up until the very, very end there. Then we got it across the finish line. Everyone was quite happy. But not every country got exactly what they wanted as part of the agreement. And so there’s a three-year cooling off period. The Trump administration adhered to that. So they only just submitted their intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement this past November 4th — November 4, 2019 — just a few months ago. And then the agreement says, “After that, it takes one year to get out of the Paris Agreement.” So on November 4th, the State Department communicated to the U.N. Secretary General the U.S. intends to exercise its withdraw prerogative under the Paris Agreement. And so November 4th of this year — one day after the U.S. election — the U.S. will finally be out.

Now in between that time, since 2017, when President Trump announced he was going to get out of Paris, a couple of things have happened. Number one is that the Paris Agreement has actually gotten more popular, rather than less popular.

Stone: Are you talking about domestically in the U.S.?

Light: Yeah. So if you look at the polling and support for either the Paris Agreement by name or an international agreement on climate change, it has gone steadily up since 2017, and including over 50% of people who identify as Republicans. Why is that the case? I think because people get it. The only way you can take on a global problem like climate change is with a global cooperative solution.

You know, even if you dig into it deeper among experts on this issue, most Republicans who work on climate change, like Dave Banks, who was President Trump’s first Senior Director in the National Security Council, on the National Economic Council for Environment and Energy. So this is the guy in the extended White House Executive Office of the President who’s responsible for stuff like this — he lasted about one year in the Trump administration. He did an exit interview, as it were, with The New York Times. When he left, he said, “Look, the Paris Agreement is a perfect agreement for Republicans, because it does make all countries of the world operate by the same rules.”

So you’ve got these sort of far leaders out there, Republicans who say it was a good agreement, who wanted the president to stay in. And then people just get it because of the idea that you need a global agreement to deal with a global problem. And the second thing that has happened — and it would be great if we can go into this — is that you’ve seen this huge movement of states and cities and business leaders in the United States to come forward and say, and the phrase that they’ve all adopted, “We are still in.” We are still in with respect to the United States’ original commitment to the Paris Agreement. And so while June 1, 2017, when President Trump announced this, was a very bad for me. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. It was very hard to see that happen, though we saw the writing on the wall that we were kind of losing that fight. The up-swell of enthusiasm from ordinary folks to climate leaders at the state and local and business levels has been extraordinary and really quite encouraging.

Stone: You know, I do want to get into that issue of city and state involvement in the Paris Process. But before that, I want to talk about 2020 for just a moment. At the end of this year, there’s going to be a U.S. presidential election. The U.S.’s future involvement in the Paris Process will hinge upon the results of that election. Is it possible that as we’re waiting to see what happens, what the outcome of the election is, nothing much will happen in terms of the Paris Process this year? We’ll be essentially in limbo, awaiting the election’s outcome.

Light: I think that many countries are going to go ahead and move forward with their plan under the schedule of the Paris Agreement, to look to enhancing their existing commitments, which are mostly out to 2030 right now. So they’ll be looking to enhance that. Some countries have already committed to doing that. They won’t wait. We’re not going to be able to tell what’s happening behind closed doors, to what extent is the fact that people don’t know the outcome of the U.S. election determining how ambitious they’re going to be. That’s just going to be one of the questions we’ll really probably never know the answers to for most parties. But then, yes. Some countries are probably going to be waiting, and there will be voices who are not as in favor of aggressive action on climate change, who will use the United States as an excuse not to do anything until we see whether the U.S. is going to re-engage globally.

Stone: Okay, so let’s look at the scenarios. Let’s say Trump loses the election. How quickly does the U.S. re-engage in the Paris Process?

Light: The earliest the U.S. can formally re-engage in Paris would be Inauguration Day, right? So January, 2021. And that will be the first day a new president can, under the rules of the Paris agreement, again communicate to the U.N. Secretary General that the United States is going to rejoin the Paris agreement. And the agreement says, “In thirty days, you’re back in.”

A couple of different caveats on that. I would be interested to sort of see if President Trump loses, and I hate to say it, but let’s assume we know who the president is by the time the Glasgow summit starts, right? Let’s not rule out that we could have a contested election. I hope it’s not as bad as 2000, but I foresee that as a possibility. But if we know that President Trump is not president by the time the Glasgow U.N. Climate Summit starts on November 9th, a new president could send an emissary. They could go themselves. It wouldn’t be out of the question. But I think they would probably want to send a signal saying, “The United States is back in. Our system doesn’t allow us to rejoin until I’m inaugurated,” something like that.

On the other side of it, though, every country that’s part of the Paris agreement has to have a commitment in good standing under the Paris agreement. The way that the rules of Paris work out is that by the time of inauguration in 2021, the United States will have already been overdue by one year to submit its next commitment under Paris to 2030. Our original commitment was to 2025. We’re one of the only countries where our original commitment under Paris was to 2025. So we were supposed to, during 2020, submit a commitment to 2030. Obviously this administration is not going to do that. So in relatively short order, a new president who has rejoined the Paris Agreement is going to have to come up with a new commitment. And it can’t just be a number. You can’t just sort of say, “Oh, I’m going to spend 10 trillion dollars and decarbonize the American economy by 2030, and write that on a piece of paper and send it in.

The rules of Paris are very strict on this, so you have to provide what’s called “ex ante information.” You have to provide detailed information on how you’re going to hit whatever your target is by 2030. And so this has got to be something where you’ve got to see that the president is able to make a case, that they’ve got a plan through either a regulatory path or some kind of deal that could be worked through Congress, or building on what the states and cities and the private sector has done in the United States, to deliver on a pledge. I don’t want to make this an exact thing, but I’d say within six months or so, there’s got to be a pretty good indication that the United States is well along, if not finished, with creating a new commitment under the Paris Agreement.

Stone: Let me ask you this question, if I may. Let’s just say for a moment that Trump gets re-elected, the United States is out of Paris for the foreseeable future. The United States, in its negotiations at the time leading up to the signing of the Paris accord five years ago obviously had certain priorities. I’d love to hear your view on what those priorities, number one, were. And number two, without the United States as part of the Paris Agreement, other countries will take over leadership. I’m thinking about countries such as China, India.

Light: Yes.

Stone: Those are the obvious ones. How might their priorities take precedence in the future, absent the U.S., and how might that change the way Paris evolves going forward?

Light: Well, that’s a great question, and I’d say number one, one of our biggest priorities — and again, this was a part of not only the Obama administration but of the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the prior — the George H.W. Bush administration. We wanted to create an agreement where countries played by the same rules.

Back in 1992, if you look at the Framework Convention on Climate Change, it really kind of looks very much like — and there’s direct language in this that people point to — which sort of says, “Developed countries, you caused this problem, so you’ve got to come up with the solution.”

And I think it is certainly the case that developed and richer countries need to do more. We’ve been polluting for a lot longer than even the biggest developing countries, so that enhances our obligations. But at the same time, the bulk of emissions in the world right now are not coming from the developed world. They’re coming from the developing world. And that will continue to be in the future. China is already the biggest emitter. It is rising rapidly in terms of per capita emissions. It will be eclipsing Europe. It will probably, sometime in this decade, become the biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gases. And you look at the top 20 emitters, which is basically the countries of the G20. Most of them are developing countries. And so you can’t imagine any solution to this problem which suggests that only developed countries are going to be the ones to reduce their emissions, because there is no way you would actually get to the kinds of reductions in emissions that would get you enough to hit the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement.

So we achieved that in Paris. We got countries to play by the same rules, but this tension between developed and developing countries that started in 1992 or just prior, when we started negotiating the Framework Convention on Climate Change. It’s still there, and it pops up. It popped up in Madrid. There was a push by a collection of developing countries in Madrid saying that really what we needed to do — because there was a prior part of these negotiations that dealt with pre-2020 ambitions — so ambition before 2020. We really need to fix the problem with what countries committed to do before 2020, not talk about how we’re going to increase their ambition, say, by 2030.

It’s kind of a mess, and not worth going into, but it was one of these places where, again, that old divide of a firewall — an imagined firewall — between the obligations of developed and developing countries popped up and really threatened to derail things. With the United States out of the picture, it’s harder to maintain this new regime that we created in Paris, where all countries are playing by the same rules, though they still get to set their own targets. And that allows them to self-differentiate, allows every country to decide what they think their fair contribution to the solution is. So that’s a big problem. And I think if the United States — if President Trump gets another term — I think that’s just going to continue to erode. The biggest party other than the United States trying to enforce that kind of outcome that we got in Paris is the European Union. And the European Union is a very complicated institution, you know? It’s not one country deciding with one prime minister or one president and their foreign minister what their negotiating position is going to be. It’s a whole bunch of countries deciding together what their common negotiating position is. And by its very nature, it makes it harder for them to toe a really strong line on some of these things that happen in these negotiations.

Australia, unfortunately, I think is probably vying with the United States with respect to having a government that wants to be intransigent in the face of climate change. So they’re not much help right now. And so you just look around the world, and there are not a lot of developed country parties that really are going to try to push that consensus position we got to in Paris. A vacuum has already been created, I think, in terms of leadership. And China has stepped into that leadership position because China and the U.S. were instrumental together in creating the Paris Agreement. The great breakthrough in the history of these negotiations still is November, 2014, when President Obama and President Xi of China jointly announced in Beijing their initial commitments under the Paris Agreement — over a year before we actually started the final negotiations in 2015. And that really signaled a breaking of the historical tension between developed and developing countries over this issue.

So the United States is out, but China still, one of the chief architects of that consensus — to find this great middle ground — is still there. I think the problem, though, is that it’s really difficult for any country at this point, other than the United States, to push China on much of anything. We’re doing that right now on a trade deal, but we’re certainly not doing that on climate change. At the same time, while China is making great inroads towards reducing its emissions consistent with its current target under Paris, they are engaged in the world’s biggest global development program we’ve ever seen. It’s called the Belt and Road Initiative. If it fully emerges, as it has been described by the Chinese government, it will be over 40 times bigger than the Marshall Plan that the United States did after World War II.

So we’re talking about this massive development program in Africa, in Europe, in Latin America. And so far, if you look at the energy infrastructure that they are building in other countries, a lot of it is coal or oil. And who is going to stand up to China on that? China is engaged in an internal process on greening this Belt and Road Initiative, and I hope that they do. And my organization is working with them on this, but the question remains — in the absence of a big peer country like the United States pushing them, will they go fast enough towards decarbonizing their own economy and also decarbonizing their global development strategy?

Stone: Well, it sounds like China has a lot of economic interest, obviously in making that happen, right? So that would definitely complicate things.

Light: It would complicate things. I was just in China in November, and one of the things — you can sort of see how these things pop up. The United States is the most convenient excuse right now for intransigence. So there were people saying to me, “Look, it’s going to be really difficult for us in China to enhance our target in the Paris Agreement in the midst of a trade war with the United States.” And I would say, “All right. Okay, I understand it’s really difficult, but let’s look at where the world is going, and how it’s not in your interest to slow down, and how much we need you right now to step up.” But maybe we’ve eliminated an excuse with the current hiatus in the trade deal, which was just announced in the last week. But how long will that hold? And what’s going to be the next excuse that’s created by the United States in this whole process?

Stone: Andrew, you were talking a little earlier about the movement of cities and states here in the United States to engage Paris, regardless of what happens at a national level, regardless of whether we stay in or get out after the election. Can cities and states effectively serve as a proxy for U.S. federal participation in the Paris Process?

Light: The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, yes — states and cities in the private sector can meaningfully contribute to the reduction of emissions in the United States. If you want a one-stop place to look at the data on this, there is a series of reports that are called “America’s Pledge.” The third one was just released at the Madrid Climate Summit in December. What it does is, the World Resources Institute does it with the Rocky Mountain Institute, the University of Maryland, and a few other partners. And we count up everything that’s verifiable, that’s real — not just kind of a hot-air, like, “Here’s our greenwashing thing that we’re saying that we’re going to do to reduce our emissions.” But really countable policies and measures, real measures to reduce emissions. We count them all up and add them all up together. Let’s talk about the footprint first, and then the impact.

So since the President has announced his withdrawal from Paris in June of 2017, over 3,500 states and cities and businesses and tribes, churches, universities — all kinds of actors — have come together and made meaningful pledges to reduce their emissions. If they were one country, they would be the second-largest economy in the world. So it represents 68% of U.S. GDP, 65% of the U.S. population, and 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. So the United States is the largest economy in the world. These U.S. non-federal actors committed to Paris would be the second-largest economy. And then China would be third. That has actually increased over time. So since the midterm elections last year, we’ve seen a bunch of states join this coalition. And the state version of this is called the U.S. Climate Alliance. So that’s the organization just of the governors who are committed to this. So that’s now about half of the states in the United States are now part of the U.S. Climate Alliance.

And you kind of add up, “Well, what does this mean? Are they reducing their emissions? Are they doing something?” And they are. The last America’s Pledge Report projects that by 2030, that collection of states and cities and businesses and other actors will achieve emission reductions of 25% by 2030. Now, let’s put this in perspective. The original U.S. pledge under Paris was to reduce our emissions 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. This collection of non-federal actors can reduce emissions 25% by 2030. That is not hitting the U.S. target. So in answer to your first question, “Can they back-fill?” Not really. Not all the way. Now in this last America’s Pledge Report, we articulate a scenario where these actors could enhance their ambition, and we think they can get something like 37% by 2030, in terms of reductions in emissions, and that’s much better.

And then we also articulate a scenario because if you had even modest federal re-engagement, you can close to 50% in emission reductions. But let’s just stick with the 37% now. That’s quite good. Especially the leaders are California, Washington state, New York state — those states and some of the bigger cities — if they can really turn the crank a little bit, they can get pretty good by 2030. It’s not enough, but it’s much better than what you would imagine would happen if the federal government were essentially steering the wheel of U.S. climate policy by itself.

Stone: Do these states exercise the same power, the same balancing power that we were talking about a few minutes ago, that a federally agreed-upon U.S. involvement in Paris would bring?

Light: No, they don’t. So when I said to answer your original question, “Yes and no,” I mean they can back-fill partially with respect to their measures to reduce emissions against the backdrop of the original U.S. pledge under Paris, but they can’t actually represent the United States in the Paris Agreement. They cannot be parties to the agreement. The Paris Agreement is an agreement among nation states. And other countries, again, would not allow some kind of amendment to the Paris Agreement so that non-national actors or non-state actors are members of it.

They can register. There’s a mechanism that was originally created by the French government when we negotiated Paris for these non-state actors to register what they’re doing. But they can’t be parties to the agreement. They can’t negotiate, let’s say the Article 6 negotiations. The U.S. will be out of the Paris Agreement by the time that the Glasgow climate summit starts in November. That will be executed. And even if we’ve elected a Democrat who wants to get back in the Paris Agreement, the United States is still not going to be part of the Paris Agreement in November because a new president can’t do anything until inauguration in 2021.

So these non-federal actors can’t negotiate. They can’t have that power. They can try to cut some deals on the side. I mean, China and California have a very close relationship and do a lot of technical assistance, and so there is some potential there. Jerry Brown, when he left office as California’s governor, created something called the “California-China Climate Institute” at UC Berkeley, which is thriving and building, and it’s got a lot of potential there, but you just can’t imagine that it’s going to have the same force as the U.S. federal government.

If President Trump gets a second term, though, I think that there is a big question about what would be the next step, though, to really up the ante on what these non-federal actors in the United States are doing. So they can’t be part of the Paris Agreement, but the question is, are there things they could do which would make their collective effort in the United States more meaningful and a better bulwark against the arguments in other countries that they shouldn’t do anything to enhance their ambition, because the United States is not doing anything? So that’s really the question. Is there a next step, especially those governors could take to really try to put more skin in the game with respect to representing some kind of commitment of the United States, even if they’re not negotiating at the table?

Stone: Any ideas you can offer on that?

Light: Yes, I think that the one I’m really thinking a lot about now is whether or not it would be possible for especially those governors — those 25 or so governors — to come up with a common target. Right now, when I say that these actors together could reduce emissions 25% by 2030, that’s an analytical exercise we do in a report to count up all these measures by these different parties, and then say, “This is what we think it will achieve by some date in the future.” And then we come up with other model runs to figure out how you could get more reductions out of those actors.

But that’s not a common target. That’s not like what the United States did in 2015, when it said, “We’re committed to reduce our emissions 26 to 28% by 2025. So I believe that what these non-federal actors are doing in the United States would have a lot more impact internationally if they committed to a common target. And that would be complicated. That would mean a negotiation among these governors and hopefully getting in some of the bigger cities and private sector players as well to commit to achieving let’s say — let’s just say randomly — 30% reduction in emissions in the United States by 2030. And what would make it real?

Well, what would make it real would not just be that they put forth a common number, and they also provide detailed information, like, “Here are the policies in each of our jurisdictions to achieve that.” But they also said, “We’re going to subject ourselves to the same kind of international scrutiny and transparency that all state parties to the Paris Agreement have currently bound themselves to.”

And this is part of the thing that we finished in the Paris rule book last year, when the climate summit was in Poland. But it would basically be these actors saying, “We will subject ourselves to the same kind of level of outside scrutiny and evaluation to make sure that we are actually making adequate progress towards our target.” And I think that actually becomes real in a way, even if these parties aren’t sending negotiators to Glasgow to sit at the table, they could still represent something, and it would stand as a firmer argument against the nay-sayers in China or India or even the E.U. or any other party which says that they shouldn’t do more because there’s nothing going on in the United States that has the same level of commitment that these countries have committed themselves to. I think it would actually go a long way, but it would be work to achieve that.

Stone: What important meetings will take place this year ahead of Glasgow in November?

Light: There are a couple of different things that are going to happen. Part of it is going to be signaling, and part of it is going to be about allied agreements that are not climate agreements, but nonetheless could still do a lot to move the needle with respect to global emissions.

So one of the most important ones is next fall, you will see the next conference of the parties to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity — what’s called the CBD. Now the Convention on Biological Diversity was created the same year as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. It’s supposed to deal with the problem of the loss of global biodiversity. It has not been as successful in terms of achieving a global agreement that has some kind of teeth and perceptibly moves the needle on its area of concern as the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Every ten years in this convention, they set targets for what they’re going to do to try to preserve the world’s biodiversity. They did targets ten years ago called the Aichi Targets. I think there are fifteen or twenty of them. Most people who have looked at those targets, and I won’t get into the details on them, have said, “You know, not a great track record in terms of achieving them.”

The meeting this fall is going to be in China. The Chinese really want a big win out of this in terms of their claim to some kind of global leadership on environmental issues, which they take very seriously. And it is something that they want to still hold onto. The purpose of this meeting is to try to set new targets. There are a whole bunch of different components of it, but the top lines are that they want to try to create a commitment to preserve 30% of the ocean and 30% of the land — and the biodiversity associated with that.

And this is a tall order. The reports coming out of Australia on the loss of species there and of individual animals is just harrowing. There are some projections that you could have lost as much as a billion animals so far from the wildfire season this year in Australia. There’s some controversy over that. But let’s just say it’s half that. It’s still a lot, and because Australia is so unique in terms of its biogeographical history and its geological history, you’ve got some species that exist there and nowhere else. So they are critically threatened by — there’s a growing consensus now that it’s at least a climate-fueled wildfire season. And so if you could actually get a hard commitment on biodiversity — I’m not saying it would stop wildfires in Australia or anything like that, but it would really focus the world in a very meaningful way on biodiversity in a way that hasn’t happened before that could potentially have some climate impacts.

The other thing that we’re seeing is there are going to be three big meetings over the course of this year that are oceans-related. One will be a U.N. Oceans Summit, and then there’s going to be a big meeting of the WTO, where they’re going to take up subsidies to overfishing. And again, the biodiversity, oceans, climate — these are overlapping areas of concern. We know that climate can make things worse in the oceans and with biodiversity. But it’s also the case that improvements on biodiversity and improvements on how we manage the oceans could also potentially have follow-on effects on improving our ability to deal with climate change.

And so those three, which are not as big on the radar of many people who are concerned about climate change, but those three meetings over the course of this year on global cooperation on oceans and ocean resource issues are really going to be important.

The other thing I want to point to — it’s not on the solution side. It’s more on really the Plan B. How do you set in place a global consensus to move forward, regardless of what happens with the U.S. election? This year the G7 is going to be held in the United States. It will be held this summer. The place where the G7 is held — you know, the host country is the chair of it — the chair sets the agenda. White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has already said that climate change will not be on the agenda at the G7 this year because the United States is hosting. That’s outrageous. The G7 has actually been a leader in previous meetings, going back over a decade now, on different initiatives on climate change.

So the question is, do the other parties to the G7, when they come to the United States for that meeting — do they stand up to the president, that he’s not having climate change on the agenda, especially when they’ve got tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in their capitals who have been protesting climate change for over a year? Or do they just go along with this, ignoring this incredibly important global crisis in the face of the intransigence from the United States? So I’m going to be looking at the G7, at least symbolically, in kind of setting the tone for hopefully how leaders might respond to a re-election of President Trump and what we could expect would be another four years of the United States pulling in the opposite direction of the rest of the world.

Stone: Andrew, thanks for talking.

Light: Thank you.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Andrew Light, Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Global Climate Program at the World Resources Institute and university professor at George Mason University.

For more discussions on climate and energy, visit the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy’s website, where you’ll find blogs, policy digests, information on our upcoming events, and yes — more than 70 archived episodes of this podcast. You can even sign up for our monthly newsletter that will bring all this content straight to your inbox.

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Andrew Light

Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy
Andrew Light is a distinguished senior fellow in the Global Climate Program at the World Resources Institute and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.