Why coal companies want Trump to stay in the Paris climate pact | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 07.04.2017
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climate protection

Why coal companies want Trump to stay in the Paris climate pact

Fossil fuel firms fearing that America will lose influence in shaping the global climate regime are urging Trump to keep a seat at the table. Climate activists can't agree on whether it's better to have Trump in or out.

When President Donald Trump unveiled his rollback of Obama-era climate policies this past March, he said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to save American coal jobs.

The changes undo tools to realize emissions reduction for the United States as promised in the global climate agreement reached in Paris in 2015 - an agreement Trump pledged to quit during his campaign.

But now some American coal companies are begging him to reconsider. They join an increasingly loud chorus of fossil fuel giants and conservative politicians who say quitting the pact will hobble American influence in the global energy business.

On Thursday (06.04.2017), Colin Marshall - the CEO of coal firm Cloud Peak Energy - wrote an open letter to Trump saying the US should stay in the pact so it can "help shape a more rational international approach to climate policy."

"As a coal producer, we do not want to ignore the two-thirds of Americans who believe that climate change is happening and that CO2 emissions play a role," he wrote.

Rail cars filled with coal at Cloud Peak Energy's Antelope Mine north of Douglas, Wyoming (picture-alliance/AP Images/R. Dorgan)

Cloud Peak Energy, owner of this mine in Wyoming, wants to US to stay in the Paris Agreement

Protecting fossil fuel interests

Marshall wrote the letter as the Reuters news agency reported earlier this week that several companies, including Cloud and Peabody Energy, were holding meetings with the White House urging continued participation in the Paris process.

Large oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, whose former chief Rex Tillerson now serves as Trump's secretary of state, have also called for the US to remain in the climate accord.

Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer, a champion of fossil fuels, has been circulating a letter to other Republican lawmakers asking Trump to remain in the deal. It has so far acquired seven signatures.

However, such entreaties are not a sign that these companies or conservative politicians want strong action to combat climate change. Rather, they are worried that the Paris Agreement regime - the specifics of which are to be worked out over the coming four years - will become a main energy and climate forum, one where the US will not have a seat at the table.

There is also concern that a future US president could take the US back into the regime, after having had no say in its early years of development. If this were the case, the concerns of the US fossil fuel industry would not have been represented in that development.

"Without US leadership, the failed international policies that have characterized the past 25 years will continue to predominate," Marshall wrote.

USA Donald Trump unterzeichnet Dekret gegen Obamas Umweltspolitik (Reuters/C. Barria)

Easy in, easy out? Trump undid Obama's climate legacy with the a stroke of the pen - the next president could flip-flop once again

Trump's spokesperson said last week said he would announce a decision on whether to quit Paris by the end of May.

Would you rather have Trump in or out?

That Trump may be reconsidering his campaign promise might seem like good news for climate campaigners. But there is a rising sentiment among advocates and policymakers that it may be better to have the US quit the accord than to have a climate-skeptic Trump administration sabotaging it from the inside.

"It's obviously not going to be helpful if the US only stays in to sabotage others from moving forward and developing the rulebook that will be negotiated over the next four-and-a-half years," Kaisa Kosonen, head of global climate policy at Greenpeace, told DW. "Should we try to keep the US in at any price? No, I don't think so."

Although there was initially fear that the entire Paris deal would collapse without the participation of the world's second-biggest carbon emitter - that is, the United States - this has not yet come to pass.

Critically, Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that China remains committed to the Paris agreement regardless of the Trump administration's decision.

In the past, China had refused to make emissions reductions unless they were matched by US efforts - a stipulation that in 2000 effectively caused the collapse of the Kyoto Protocol (the Paris agreement's predecessor).

"One could, in a way, say that the US has already pulled out, because Trump has already rolled back the national implementation of the agreement," says Kosonen, referring to rescissions of Obama's climate linchpin, the Clean Power Plan.

But she has not yet seen countries responding to this by dropping action plans. "The world has changed, and China has changed," Kosonen said.

She pointed out that President Xi gave a clear statement in Davos in February, saying China is ready to take a climate leadership roll, and has no plans to roll back its clean energy plans in light of the Trump administration's rules.

Chinese technicians inspect wind turbines at a wind farm in Tianchang city, east China's Anhui province, 21 December 2015 (picture-alliance/dpa/Imaginechina/Song Weixing)

Chinas has been installing renewable energy capacity at a rapid pace

China and EU can lead

Last week, the UN's former climate chief Christiana Figueres - an architect of the Paris agreement - said that there would be "advantages" for other countries if the US quits the Paris agreement.

"It's not a black-and-white scenario,” she told Reuters.

By staying in the pact but at the same time having no national legislation in place to meet its commitments, the United States could actually undermine the agreement, which requires countries to make ever-deeper cuts.

If the world's second-largest emitter is not meeting this obligation, it would make it easier for other countries to follow suit. With the US outside the agreement, they could not point to American rule-breaking as an exception.

On the other hand, the US cannot be forcibly removed from the agreement, as there are no mechanisms to punish noncompliance.

The question has become: Is it more demoralizing to have the US out of the agreement, or within the agreement but breaking the rules?

The Kyoto agreement failed because it lacked the participation of the US or China, the world's two largest emitters. It is not yet known if China's participation without the US would be enough to give the Paris agreement legitimacy. Some have indicated that the European Union should jointly pick up the reins instead.

Commissioner in charge of climate and energy, Miguel Arias Canete at a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, 30 November 2016 (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Hoslet)

Can the EU lead on climate? Canete's statement indicates it wants to

Since Trump's election, the EU has shifted its focus to bilateral cooperation with China on climate. In March, Miguel Arias Cañete - the EU's climate commissioner - visited China to work on an energy roadmap between the Beijing and Brussels.

"The EU and China are joining forces to forge ahead on the implementation of the Paris Agreement and accelerate the global transition to clean energy," the commissioner said during the visit. Wheels will keep turning for ambitious global climate action, was the message.

"In these turbulent times, shared climate leadership is needed more than ever."

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