Although the Paris Agreement on climate change took effect on November 5, 2016, considerable uncertainty remains over its prospects. Perhaps the most important directions for the future are for the American  people to keep their president in the fold, for the European Union and China jointly to play a leading role, and for all countries to become more ambitious over time.

On June 1, US President Donald Trump announced that he was pulling his country out of the Paris Agreement, while aiming to reboot America’s ailing coal industry and expand gas and oil drilling. In recent years US greenhouse-gas emissions have started to taper off; instead of trying to fulfill the US pledge to cut emissions by a quarter to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, Trump intends to reverse the ambitious environmental course charted under his predecessor Barack Obama.

The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels with an “aspiration” not to exceed 1.5 degrees this century given the increased scientific certainty on human-induced emissions. It took effect last November 5 after being ratified and formally adopted by more than 100 nations.

Negative impacts of Trump’s denialism

Trump’s decision was an act of political vandalism that will have a  lasting imprint. It will result in increasing US emissions, put a brake on America’s renewable-energy industries, and fatally wound its  reputation as a global leader. It would undoubtedly bring risks for the rest of the world, which will have to work harder to make up for US emissions, which are already the world’s second-highest.

It will make it harder to stabilize planetary warming below dangerous levels, and set back by years attempts to hold temperatures to a 2-degree rise. It will drive into deeper poverty countries that already suffer increasing droughts, floods, famine, and the inundation of low-lying coastal areas.

It is more likely to damage the United States’ interests and economy, especially a huge lost opportunity of green jobs for working people and consumers. It could also prompt trade wars with heavy carbon taxes if it exports goods manufactured with dirty energy.

In the meantime, Trump’s decision could embolden other nations, especially fossil-fuel-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to put obstacles in the way of reducing emissions and pick apart the historic Paris Agreement. Those states that have not yet ratified the agreement may delay their actions, while those that have signed it will use the Trump’s opposition as an excuse to step back from their commitments.

However, the US pullout will not tip the world into fiery catastrophe. Around the globe, leaders from China to India to Russia to the EU as well as much of the American public have lined up to against him. The extraordinary unity of the rest of the world allied with the booming green economy means Trump’s decision may be doomed. Because more than 190 other countries signed the Paris Agreement, the global deal is less likely to be turned down or even renegotiated.

Inherent defects in the Paris Agreement

The fact is, however, the Paris Agreement is very weak in the sense that pledges on emission reductions made by each government and on aid flows made by developed countries to developing ones are not legally binding. Although the agreement claims to stick to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, rich countries are not required to assume any compulsory emission-reduction targets and aid donations compatible with their stage of development.

While there are ratchet mechanisms that might allow the world to firm up its efforts as the temperature rises, the Paris Agreement is more or less a tissue of compromise and gestures that keeps the process moving and a tenuous embankment against climbing temperatures and rising sea levels.

On emission reduction targets

The Paris Agreement means the global emissions of greenhouse gases need to be phased out. As required, each country submitted a climate plan, called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, given the warming target. However, the problem is that, as suggested last year by the United Nations Environment Program’s “Emissions Gap Report” as well as by research scholar Joeri Rogelj and others, even if all of the national pledges were added together and implemented in full, global temperatures would rise by between 2.9 and 3.4 degrees by the end of this century, instead of meeting the goal of “well below 2 degrees”.

At the 22nd meeting of the conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, called the COP22 process, 48 nations promised to cut their carbon emissions dramatically and rapidly and move to 100% renewable power. Encouragingly and ironically, some of the world’s most vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Philippines set good examples in delivering the goals of the Paris Agreement by filing plans to build zero-carbon societies by the middle of the century.

While these ambitious and inspiring commitments give us all renewed optimism in terms of meeting the global challenge in due course, their pledges might have relatively small global implications. The bulk of emission reductions ultimately rely on the developed world and large economies.

On climate aid

According to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, developed countries have an obligation to help developing countries financially. However, the COP22 summit made limited headway in this regard; more specifically, just US$165 million of new money was pledged by developed economies for the Green  Climate Fund, set up by the UN to distribute an eventual $100 billion a year to help developing nations’ mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.

On June 1, Trump decided to stop US contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The US, which had been expected to be the biggest contributor to the fund, has pledged $4 billion over four years, but so far has only delivered around $500 million.

Something positive and the way forward

China and the EU will forge an alliance to take a leading role toward a low-carbon economy in response to Trump’s decision, with a joint statement having been issued. In addition, among other countries, China has been making great positive efforts to reduce its emissions and initialize the green and carbon-low development mode.

On November 4, 2016, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a five-year plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and showed its ambition by targeting the reduction of carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 18% compared with that in 2015 by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, China has pledged to help developing countries deal  with climate-change challenges under the South-South Cooperation Fund.

Beijing has a concrete program to help developing partners by building up 10 carbon-low demonstration zones, launching 100 projects to cope with climate changes and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and offering more than 1,000 training places in China.

Perhaps the most important directions for the future are for US people to hold back Trump’s climate denialism, for the EU and China to play their leading role followed by other countries, and for countries to become more ambitious over time by setting in place stocktakes for new targets and take them seriously.

Yongfu Huang served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as lead author for the Fifth Assessment Report, and is currently being placed on a roster of pre-approved candidates for the position of economic affairs officer at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations. E-mail: yfhcambridge@hotmail.com.