The Paris Agreement will succeed without the USA

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2017

Alastair Marsh believes the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is a reminder that populous, industrialising countries deserve more attention.

To twist a common saying, there’s no USA in team. The USA has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement – an accord between nearly all the world’s countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to limit the rise in global temperature to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

To gauge the impact and appropriate response to this, let’s remind ourselves of the nuts and bolts of the Agreement. Each country has voluntarily pledged to reduce its GHG emissions over the coming years by a chosen amount – this is known in UN parlance as ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs). Countries will report on progress every two years, but as it’s voluntary there’s no penalty if targets are missed. Another part is that developed countries (private sector contributions allowed) are expected to provide resources – for example, to the UN Green Climate Fund – to assist less developed countries in both mitigating and adapting to climate change. The goal is to annually raise and distribute US$100bln by 2020, alongside technological and other assistance. 

The White House press release referenced these aspects in its arguments for withdrawal, claiming that the required emission reductions would necessitate cuts in certain industries and cost millions of jobs, that it’s unfair for the USA to contribute to the UN Green Climate Fund with no return and that the globally pledged emissions cuts wouldn’t impact climate change anyway. I believe that although this is big, bad news, there is good reason to be positive if we turn our focus to populous, industrialising countries.

The USA is the world’s second largest GHG emitter, behind China. It emitted 6.2 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GT/yr CO2eq) in 2005, the baseline year the USA used for its NDC. The pledge made in its NDC was to reduce GHG emissions by 26–28% by 2025, down to 4.5GT/yr CO2eq. To put this in context, the UNFCC recommends that to limit global temperature rise to less than 2°C, we reduce global GHG emissions to 40GT/yr CO2eq. Since global emissions were 49GT/yr CO2eq in 2010, the USA’s pledge would have been a significant contribution.

Yet trends in emissions and population suggest that the USA’s global footprint is already diminishing. Emissions have been falling on average since 2000, albeit not at the rate needed. From 2015–2050, it’s estimated that North America’s population, while still rising overall, will fall as a share of global population from 4.9 to 4.5%. Over the same period, Africa and Asia’s combined share will rise from 75.9% to 79.7%, despite the world’s population rising by an estimated 2.37 billion. I believe that if the USA (at the governmental level, at least) doesn’t want to join in, we should concentrate our efforts to work with those countries where the biggest impact is likely to be had. These are the populous, industrialising countries in Africa and Asia.  

In the technical business of cutting GHG emissions, prevention is easier than cure. It will cost less to invest in low GHG-emitting infrastructure, buildings and industry in developing, rapidly growing countries than retrofitting or replacing what exists in more developed, population-stable countries. Surely the developing countries are where our attention is best placed. 

Indonesia has demonstrated intentions to address its emissions, both through renewables and, more controversially, a clean coal programme (see Materials World, June 2017, page 22). Its pledged NDC is to cut down to 2GT/yr CO2eq by 2030 against a business-as-usual scenario (BAU) of 2.9GT/yr CO2eq – a reduction of 29%. Most developing countries have used a BAU baseline, meaning that even with their NDCs, there will still be an absolute increase in emissions. Contrast this with the USA’s NDC pledge, which is an absolute reduction. Indonesia’s NDC is admittedly not the most ambitious, perhaps understandable in light of parallel urgent challenges for government and society – 11% of the population live below the poverty line. Again, surely this is another argument to make this group of countries a focus of both greater support and scrutiny?

Let’s consider how and where we can contribute as a global team of skilled engineers. The consequences of climate change are rightly scary, but this is a time of opportunity that calls for technological ingenuity and international relationships. A Chilean developer of bamboo walling technology could set up in Malaysia, while research on carbon-neutral diamond mining in Botswana could be transferrable to Canada. Despite setbacks, there’s evidence that we can prevent catastrophic climate change if we want to, and there’s a lot we can do to prepare for the challenge – brush up on a second language, make new international acquaintances in your field, read Materials World. The game is on.

Alastair Marsh is a PhD student at the University of Bath, UK, researching geopolymer stabilised soil materials for informal sector housing construction in urban areas of lower economically developed countries.