Au Revoir, M’sieur Trump?

(This was published in Firstpost on Jun 01, 2017)

“The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”

Good advice for the rest of the world in waiting for America’s decision on the Paris accord. Especially since it comes from Trump himself in his book “The Art of the Deal”.

And the current situation is a big deal.

Only that the world’s largest cumulative greenhouse gas emitter is deciding, at its leisure, whether to stay in a relatively mild agreement on climate change. For all the drama in the headlines, the Paris Accord, even its current state, lacks bite. By staying and not achieving its self-determined targets, the US loses little. It may get a few cold stares, and some diplomatic quips, but there is nothing legally to get the US to tighten up on its emissions.

Not yet, anyway.

So why all the fuss? Why the urgency?

Representational image. Reuters

To answer this question, we need to grapple with something called the carbon budget. First, let us start with the word “budget” – it tells you how much you can spend while staying within certain goals. For instance, a household budget is the amount a household can spend while sticking to certain saving goals and achieving a desired lifestyle. A calorie budget determines how much we can eat while sticking to a certain activity level and a desired weight.  Similarly, a global carbon budget tells humanity how much greenhouse gas emissions we can produce while having a reasonable chance of staying within a safe temperature increase.  This safe increase has been determined as a 2°C warming from pre-industrial temperatures.

What happens when we warm beyond 2°C?

Let us take the best scientific understanding of what will happen, and convert it into plain English.

As it warms, rain will fall more intensely. Wetter regions will get wetter, but will now get their rainfall on fewer days. Resulting in? Storms and Floods. Events such as the Chennai Floods will become far more commonplace.

On the other side of the coin, drier regions such as Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat will get a lot drier. Droughts such as what South India is currently experiencing will become more common. Punjab that is using its groundwater with impunity will have to reconsider its agricultural ways wholesale.

Temperatures will get warmer – decimating yields of many crops (unless we adapt, but that’s another story). Certain regions of the world will become uninhabitable, resulting in millions of climate refugees. Unique regions of the world, such as the coral reefs, will be lost forever. It’s very hard to describe the other-worldly beauty of the coral reefs unless you’ve actually swum amidst them – the colours, the sheer diversity, the hive and hum of activity. But it’s very very likely that the reefs are doomed even with marginally more warming than today, let alone a 2°C warming. Human health will suffer especially in the hotter and poorer regions of the world. Death due to heatstroke will increase, and mosquito-borne diseases and mental illness will begin to exert a heavier toll.

Unpleasant, to say the least, and worth avoiding. This is where the budget becomes important. OK then, what’s the budget?

Conservative science (based on research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimates that humanity can emit up to 762 billion tonnes of Carbon dioxide emissions from 2017 and still have a 66 percent chance of staying within a 2°C warming from pre-industrial times. Given our current emissions rate, that gives us just under 20 years before we blow through this budget.

But this budget is a severe underestimate because it does not consider the warming caused by greenhouse gases other than CO2. A paper by Rogelj et al in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change, suggests that the budget could fall to as low as 510 billion tonnes from today. That puts the window to get our emissions to zero a just a little over ten years from today.


Of course, once a budget is set comes the next challenge. How do we divide it?

Anyone who has worked in a departmental context, knows of the aggressive jockeying that takes place while allocating budgets.

Imaging this happening on a planetary scale, with a Trump-led-America in the mix.

There are several approaches that the world could take in dividing the carbon budget. One is in terms of historical responsibility. Keep in mind Carbon dioxide tends to stick around in the atmosphere for a long time -a significant fraction stays around for centuries. We can argue if a country has contributed to “more than its share” historically, it should pay or contribute less going forward. And historically, the US has eaten up far more than its fair share of the historical carbon budget – its share of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions exceeds 25%. India’s share, in contrast, is a tiny 2 percent of cumulative carbon emissions till date. To round out this discussion, the EU-28 has a 23 percent share and China has a 11 percent share.

And yet Trump says “It’s not a fair situation because they are paying virtually nothing and we are paying massive amounts of money”. Hmm…not sure where he is coming from.

Countries like India — developing and with large populations — will argue that the remaining budget should be split on a per capita basis adjusted for past emissions. Others may say, “Let us extrapolate existing contributions with richer countries paying for poorer countries to reduce their emissions”. Others might just say “Get lost”— in polite or less polite terms.

The Paris agreement has side-stepped this point completely by getting countries to make their own commitments. There was a lot of “Mine is better than yours” diplomatic heckling that made the commitments more ambitious than they would have otherwise been. Note that this approach works in a context where the big emitters believe in the process and want to make it work. Heckling Trump, I believe, will not get him to change tack and opt for higher emission cuts in the US.

Where does this leave the world, and more importantly, how should the world react?

To answer this, let us ask what does the world get if America stays in the Paris accord.

There is the symbolic victory. Even Trump believes in climate change. But this symbolic victory would exact a heavy price. The US, under President Trump’s leadership, could get the world to dilute many of the provisions in the Paris accord, including perhaps the pledge and review process and the Green Climate Fund.

While, if the US were to leave, or daring thought – be chucked out! – then the game changes. The rules of climate engagement due to be finalised in 2018 could be made much stronger – this would be good for the planet. Also putting some sort of carbon tax on US imports or services provided by US companies in compliant countries would serve to make the deal sweeter for the rest of the world. Some of these funds could even support the Green Climate Fund.

In climatically-inappropriate F1 parlance it would be “Game on!”

Perhaps the oil companies realise this. One of the delicious ironies of the last few months is ‘Big Oil’s’ urging of Trump to stay in the Paris Accord. The Paris accord is about reducing humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are driven in a large part by burning oil.

climate conversations logo for mridula ramesh

Shell was one of the signatories of a letter addressed to Trump which begins by saying: “We write to express our support for continued participation by the United States in the Paris climate change agreement.” Shell’s chief later stated, “the US would weaken its own hand by basically uninviting itself from a number of [negotiating] tables,”. 

The question really is what does the world lose if a climate-sceptical American left the Paris accord.

On one hand, American emissions could rise. This could happen anyway, even if America were to remain in the Paris accord. The other would be geopolitical storm that would be unleashed if America is asked to leave. The storm would cause damage, but perhaps a stronger agreement could emerge.

Coming back to Trump.

In this deal, arguable the world’s most serious, what would his words of advice be?

But my experience is that if you’re fighting for something you believe in — even if it means alienating some people along the way — things usually work out for the best in the end.”