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5 questions you’ve wanted to ask about the Paris Agreement

© Yann Caradec/Flickr Creative Commons

Editor’s note: On Monday, November 4, 2019, the Trump administration began the official withdrawal process of the United States from the Paris Agreement, which will take a year to formalize. Upon withdrawal, the U.S. will no longer be bound to reach its emissions reductions targets pledged under the accords.

This post was updated on November 4, 2019.

Conservation News takes a look at five things you need to know about the historic international accord.

1. I’m in favor of action on climate change, but isn’t there a tradeoff between following the Paris Agreement and growing the economy?

Quite the opposite. Business leaders agree that the Paris Agreement is good for the American economy. In a series of open letters to the president, chief executives from many of America’s largest corporations — from Apple to Cargill to Coca-Cola to Walmart — have advocated for continued American participation in the Paris Agreement. Why? A strong Paris Agreement means that all countries will be working toward the same climate goal, leveling the playing field for American manufacturers and creating new markets abroad for climate-friendly technology like solar panels and energy-efficient appliances. Corporate chiefs also argue that the agreement provides needed certainty for planning long-term investments and will reduce climate-related risks. In fact, acting now on climate change is our best insurance policy against the most harmful impacts of climate change.

We have seen this before. When the world agreed in the late 1980s to phase out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, American chemical manufacturers led the charge to develop ozone-safe replacements, and their business benefited as a result. Today, American companies are poised to lead on climate action worldwide, and the Paris Agreement represents an opportunity to grow their businesses.

2. I care about climate, but the destruction of nature concerns me more. Why should the Paris Agreement be a priority?

One of the main causes of global climate change is the destruction of natural ecosystems — for example, deforestation and unsustainable land conversion for agriculture. Deforestation destroys 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of forest every year — an area the size of North Carolina — adding more carbon to the atmosphere than the sum total of all the cars and trucks in the world. That’s because the carbon stored in dense tropical forests, peatlands and mangroves gets released when they are burned, cleared or degraded. In total, solutions like halting tropical deforestation and allowing forests to regrow naturally can contribute at least 30 percent of the reductions or removals needed to reach the targets set in the Paris Agreement. Yet, nature-based solutions currently receive only 2 percent of all climate funding — a mismatch that amounts to a big opportunity for climate action and conservation.

To address the importance of nature-based solutions, the Paris Agreement strongly endorses REDD+, the U.N. mechanism focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing nations. The success of efforts like REDD+ are crucial in maximizing nature’s potential as a climate solution. Conservation International has protected 373,832 hectares (923,759 acres) of critical forests under the REDD+ program to date, and the Paris Agreement is an important means for continuing and building on this success.

3. I think we need to find common ground — isn’t the Paris Agreement a partisan issue?

In recent months, political leaders from both parties have spoken up in support of the Paris Agreement. George Shultz, secretary of state under U.S. President Ronald Reagan, has been a vocal advocate for the Paris Agreement. Current U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sees a benefit to staying in Paris, according to news reports. Even major American coal companies have advocated to stay in the agreement. Their reasoning: The United States must keep its seat at the table in order to advocate American interests on the world stage.

Separately, a group of prominent Republicans have presented a Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends — effectively a revenue-neutral tax on carbon that sends money directly back to Americans. And a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill reauthorizing American action to reduce deforestation and the huge greenhouse gas emissions it produces.

Meanwhile, polls in the United States have been remarkably consistent on Paris, showing levels of support between 69 and 71 percent — including a majority of voters from both parties.

4. Wouldn’t a U.S. exit be the end of the Paris Agreement?

According to Christiana Figueres, the former head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change who led work on the Paris Agreement, the accord doesn’t rely on the participation of any single country. In a recent interview, Figueres — also a Lui-Walton Distinguished Fellow at CI — argued that the actions of any single country cannot threaten the progress made by the Paris Agreement. “One country can choose to park itself, if you will, on the sidelines of a highway that is very quickly taking us toward decarbonization,” Figueres told PRI. “But [that] does not change the direction of travel of all the rest of the countries.”

Paris was such a success in part because of its near-universal acceptance by all the nations of the world. Only two countries did not sign on to Paris — Nicaragua, which was protesting for an even stronger agreement, and Syria, which is in the grips of war. Everyone else found something to like in Paris, even countries that in the past have opposed or questioned global efforts to address climate change. The strength of the Paris Agreement derives from its flexibility to allow countries to establish their own targets, while creating processes to hold them accountable and enhance action over time.

Already two of the biggest players in the Paris Agreement — the European Union and China — have committed to stay in the agreement no matter what the U.S. does. Meanwhile, countries have moved forward with plans and policies to meet their climate targets. India is drafting plans to phase out new sales of gasoline-powered vehicles in favor of electric cars by 2032. China committed earlier this year to scrap plans for over 100 coal-fired power plants. Even within the U.S., individual states such as California have pledged to meet and even exceed their contributions to the goals set out in Paris, regardless of what the federal government does.

5. But is the agreement that important anyway?

The Paris Agreement is the most inclusive global agreement on climate change to date. Previous accords like the Kyoto Protocol focused on cutting emissions from the developed world. Paris, in contrast, set a global goal to which every country has agreed to contribute. While it does not bind any one country to any one solution, it focuses all players on the same challenge.

Indeed, according to experts, the collective contributions put forward so far do not yet add up to what is needed to meet the global goals. But the agreement was always designed to be a starting point, not an ending point, and experts point to provisions in the Paris Agreement that allows for its continual improvement. “The Paris Agreement was built to be both flexible and resilient,” said CI climate policy expert Maggie Comstock. “Countries and businesses will continue to take meaningful action because they get that climate action is not only smart for the planet — it can be smart for their businesses as well.”

Shyla Raghav is Conservation International’s climate change lead.

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