Climate change is widely agreed to be one of the most significant threats to human health and security in the twenty-first century. Excessive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are seen to be causing a considerable increase in the average global temperature. This in turn endangers the habitats and migration patterns of many species, adds volatility to the climate system, and threatens populated shorelines due to rising sea levels and a heightened flood risk. Although the economic superpowers contribute the most to global emissions, those most vulnerable to climate change are the developing small island nations who are least equipped to deal with extreme weather events, inland flooding and rising temperatures.
The ratification of the Paris Agreement in 2016 officialised a universal strategy to reduce global emissions, a move that is hoped to mitigate the threats posed by climate change through limiting the rise in average global temperatures to between 1.5- 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement (COP21) marked a departure from the preceding Kyoto Protocol, widely acknowledged as a failed initiative due to the US’ and Canada’s withdrawal and the subsequent failure of states to ratify the Doha Amendment which aimed to lengthen the commitment period to 2020. Kyoto primarily sought to ensure developed nations were under a legally binding greenhouse gas reduction scheme as part of its ‘same but differentiated responsibilities’ narrative. Ultimately, this alienated developed nations and removed the impetus for collaborative action. In contrast, COP21 is less targeted in its approach and the voluntary nature of declared national emissions targets has led to greater levels of cooperation.
The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement generated concern that it will face a similar fate to the Kyoto Protocol, especially given the US’ status as the second biggest emitter. Nevertheless, the withdrawal galvanised a wave of recommitments by the other biggest emitters, including Russia, China, Brazil and the EU who all saw reduced CO2 emissions in 2016, with the exception of India.
Although the US’s withdrawal from COP21 marks a regression from the Obama administration’s enthusiastic role in its creation, the reduced costs of renewable energy sources means it is likely the nation will continue the trajectory of GHG reductions in spite of this, especially considering this sector is growing twelve times as fast as the aggregate US economy. Moreover, progress at state level is likely to continue despite Washington’s retreat from climate action. The success of media campaigns such as ‘We are Still in’ and ‘America’s Pledge’ are manifestations of the overall US impetus for continued support of universal climate action. All hope is not lost.