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Why the Paris Agreement is in the U.S.’s Best Interest

By Mark Tercek | Mark’s Desk | March 10, 2017

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune. Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkTercek.

Recent news reports indicate the Trump Administration is considering either leaving the Paris Agreement on climate change or weakening the U.S.’s emissions reduction pledge.

Either course of action would be an enormous mistake.

The Paris Agreement isn’t about UN bureaucrats telling the U.S. what to do. It’s about the U.S. and each country deciding what is best for itself to drive growth and innovation, and having the tools to make sure others are contributing as well.

This flexible, bottom-up agreement that engages all countries to act in their own self-interest on climate stands in sharp contrast to the Kyoto Protocol.

Two decades ago, the U.S. Senate voted 97-0 to reject the UN’s first international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Why? Because it did not require emissions reductions from China, India and other developing countries. The Senate feared that an international treaty requiring GHG emissions control only in the most developed countries would put our economy at a great disadvantage. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world—most notably our partners in the European Union—proceeded ahead under the Kyoto regime.

And so began a struggle at international conferences that has extended over more than a decade. Kyoto’s top-down, legally enforceable emissions reductions requirements were based on responsibility for historical emissions. Since then, the United States has insisted on a different model—one that holds rapidly developing countries accountable for their prospective future emissions.

The science has turned out to be on the U.S. side. Today, China’s emissions exceed the U.S.’s by more than 60 percent. And India is likely to be on a similar pathway in the next few years.

With this focus on future—not just past—emissions, both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations supported a bottom-up agreement that asked for an appropriate contribution from all countries, including China and India, to global emissions reductions. Both administrations understood that the only way to achieve domestic support for an international climate change agreement was to secure appropriate emissions reductions pledges from developing countries. And because each country could determine its own contribution, such an agreement would secure much broader participation and a stronger foundation.

At the Paris negotiations, the global community finally adopted the type of plan the U.S. had long sought—a flexible dialogue going forward that would require appropriate contributions from all countries, judged by all countries. It took more than a decade for the best negotiators ever assembled by the American government to turn this dialogue around from not focusing solely on the historical responsibility of industrialized countries like the U.S., but also addressing the growing pollution of the future coming mostly from the developing world. What we were, China and India will soon become, so all nations must agree to share in the solution. In Paris, the world agreed to that proposition, with 197 countries pledging their own plans to combat climate change.

The United States is arguably in the best position to benefit economically from the global transition to a clean energy economy. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are now lower than they have been since 1994, thanks to strong market forces and state policies to support renewable energy and new technologies to produce shale gas at very low costs. If we can lead the world to a lower emissions economy, the new jobs will be ours. The Paris Agreement creates new opportunities and expanding markets abroad that U.S. companies are well positioned to exploit. We should not cede this space to countries like China that are investing heavily in renewable technologies.

The U.S. abandoned Kyoto because China and India were not part of the solution. If we refuse to do our part now, we shouldn’t be surprised if China and India fail to meet their Paris commitments.

That chain of events would be disastrous.

In the coming decades, developing countries are projected to drive emissions growth. The Paris Agreement is our opportunity to reshape that future in ways that protect our climate and our economy from the explosive emissions growth that would otherwise occur. Carbon launched into the atmosphere from anywhere has impacts all around the world. Without a robust Paris process, emissions increases in the developing world are likely to impose huge costs here at home as we struggle to adapt to the impacts on our health, our property, our jobs and our environment.

If the Trump Administration chooses now to pull out of a global agreement that the U.S. government pushed so hard for over a dozen years, what is the world to think? No doubt, our credibility and leverage on other foreign policy issues would take a huge hit. The nations of the world rightfully expect U.S. policy to be foresighted and steadfast. President Trump has an important opportunity to show the world that the promises of the United States are durable, especially with respect to a universal threat as serious as climate change.

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