How Global Climate Action Can Still Succeed Despite Trump

People were literally crying in the corridors of the recent UN Climate Summit in Morocco when they heard the results of the US presidential election. There are many wild things Donald Trump has said he would do, that technically or constitutionally are not possible, but the one thing he can do is ‘trump’ the climate talks. He can even withdraw from the Paris Agreement, although in practice, it would take him four years to do so. This might not even be the worst-case scenario for the climate negotiations, as other conventions like the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) have fared quite well without US participation. The fact that the CBD was able to adopt progressive policies like moratoria on dangerous technologies was undoubtedly partly due to the fact that the US is from a handful of countries that have never become a party to the CBD.

Of course, the situation here is slightly different as the US is one of the top climate polluters. Its absence and unwillingness to take up ambitious emission reduction targets would leave a big gap in the effectiveness of the overall climate regime. But the United States’ progressive (and often more populous) states and local authorities can continue to implement ambitious greenhouse gas reduction plans. So in the US, the climate battle is very much back to the state and local level for the coming four years, as the Global Justice Ecology Project has rightfully pointed out.

Meanwhile, the worst-case scenario for the climate regime itself is not so much that the US would leave, but that the US would stay — especially as one of Trump’s wild election promises is to “renegotiate” the Paris Agreement. Legally, this would be very difficult. But there would be little need to do so, as the commitments in the Paris Agreement are already quite ambiguous and non-binding, that the agreement itself can be seen as an insult to international law.

Parties are free to take up any kind of target and achieve that target by any means, including nuclear energy, geoengineering, destructive hydroelectric dams or monoculture tree plantations. Even “solutions” that are as polluting as fossil fuels, like bioenergy, can be promoted under the Paris Agreement, thanks to the flawed accounting frameworks countries are allowed to use. There are no concrete legally binding obligations in the Paris Agreement to compensate the loss and damage of countries that are suffering from climate change, or to provide financial support for the mitigation efforts of developing countries. So the US can simply refuse to contribute any further funding to the climate regime and its implementation. This is likely to be one of the first steps the Trump administration will take.

The US can also block further progress in the negotiations on the many rules that still need to be agreed upon. We got a taste of how that could unfold at the climate talks in Marrakesh, when the US effectively trumped negotiations on a work program on agriculture under the climate regime. Unsustainable agriculture and livestock production are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse emissions. Unsustainable meat and dairy alone are responsible for an estimated 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions when deforestation for the expansion of cattle ranches and (soy) feedstock production are taken into account. So there is an obvious need to address the negative environmental impacts of this sector.

Yet the story is a bit more complicated as agriculture and livestock, including pastoralism, are a source of food and livelihoods for billions of the poorest people on the planet and not just elements of carbon accounting in climate negotiations. The present climate agreement has a tendency for “carbon fetishism” — to focus on land and ecosystems as potential sinks of carbon only. All other fundamental dimensions are reduced to so-called “co-benefits.”Such an approach with forests in REDD+ has already proven to be very damaging for forest communities’ rights.

More importantly, peasants and pastoralists do not need a new work program on agriculture under the Paris Agreement to move towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns in the food and agriculture sector. All over the world, millions of grassroots initiatives have been taken over the past years to make agricultural practices more ecologically sound, to protect and restore forests, and to reduce the overconsumption of products like meat and dairy. Pastoralists and small farmers have been practicing sustainable agriculture and livestock production for centuries; they certainly will not suddenly halt those practices because the US has trumped negotiations on an agriculture work program under the climate regime.

Other UN agencies and conventions have developed many different work programs to promote sustainable food systems, and the customary practices and traditional knowledge that is at the heart of such systems. And while there should be a lot more progress, especially on issues like the redirection of harmful subsidies for unsustainable agriculture and livestock production — which parties to the CBD agreed to phase out by 2020 — such programs will not suddenly stop if climate negotiations are trumped in the coming four years. In fact, the only thing the climate regime might have added to these existing programs is a seriously flawed carbon market in land-use related emissions that would have benefited some of the most polluting industrial livestock producers and retailers, while marginalizing small farmers, pastoralists and women on the ground.

Even the implementation of the Paris Agreement by governments does not depend on further rules, as the many new plans and initiatives that have been developed over the past year, like the African Renewable Energy Initiative, have shown. Sure, it would be cynical, unjust and a violation of the principles of the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change if the US does not contribute financially to compensating loss and damage and the implementation of the Paris Agreement in general. But most US finance went to corporations, or corporate-driven foundations like the Gates and Clinton Foundations anyway. US finance almost always came with a whole range of neoliberal conditionalities that forced countries and communities to adopt market-based approaches to climate action.

The most promising actions, like community conservation and restoration of ecosystems through agroecological practices, require relatively small amounts of appropriate public support, including legal support, rather than large amounts of US finance to set up a new carbon market in agricultural offsets. As rightfully pointed out by a representative of the German development bank KfW at a REDD+ event at the climate talks in Marrakesh, the most important actions in the land use sector depend on political will rather than finance. And the one positive effect the Paris conference has had is that it has created a political momentum for transformative action at all levels, including local, state and national levels, that does not depend on further developments in the climate regime. Or on Trump.