Paris Pittsburgh Planet People and Profit

Guest blog by Liz Thompson: Liz is a sustainability consultant. She has served as Assistant Secretary-General of the UN for the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, as an elected Member of Parliament, Senator and Minister of Energy and Environment of Barbados and most recently as Interim Executive Director of the SUNY-UWI Center for Leadership and Sustainable Development.

Reactions to the decision of the president of the U.S to withdraw from the voluntary climate pact known as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, have ranged from surprise, to dismay, to disappointment, to chagrin, to relief, to elation.

The decision to withdraw should have come as no surprise, for three principal reasons. First, on some matters, President Trump seems determined to keep the campaign promises of candidate Trump, at all costs. Second, his Party and his base are in the majority, climate change deniers and therefore see no need to take corrective action, despite the clear science. Third, during the campaign, candidate Trump firmly and unabashedly articulated the view that climate change is not real, but a hoax being perpetrated by the Chinese. Given this background, the issue was not if the new president would have pulled out of the Paris Agreement, but how soon.

The reality is that of the UN’s 193 member states, all but two have signed on to the Paris Agreement. Under this Agreement, which was negotiated amongst UN member countries, not imposed on them, countries made voluntary commitments about their “nationally determined contributions” to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the use of carbon intensive technologies, manufacturing methods and industrial processes. The fact that countries’ commitments are voluntary, “nationally determined” and that default on such commitments carries no penalties, all mean that the Paris Agreement is ambitious but not inherently “draconian.”

Almost without exception, every year since 2004, when investment in clean technology was US $45 billion, the investment in green energy technology, bonds, funds and capital has grown steadily. By 2014 global investment in clean technologies had reached $270 billion, by 2015, it was $286 billion. These figures represent double the investment in new coal and gas fired energy plants. China is leading the way with green energy investment, followed by the United States in second place. The generation of investment, development and improvement of new technologies, the effort to increase storage capacity of renewable energy technologies are combining to create new jobs.

On the other hand, coal is a dying industry. It is being killed, not by global climate change agreements or globalization, but by the fact that fracking in the United States has produced large volumes of cleaner gas, generated new wealth and jobs and given the U.S an unprecedentedly high level of energy independence and energy security. These are market driven factors. The reality is that market demand for coal in America and across the globe, is shrinking. Major polluters such as India, China and large developing countries are also making the shift from coal and brown energy technologies to green technologies.  

All the wishing in the world will not resuscitate coal, or coal jobs in the U.S because there is just not sufficient demand for it. Given this energy landscape, the attempt to save coal jobs is the equivalent of trying to create more jobs for blacksmiths and training people to repair typewriters in the era when this country and the world were transitioning from horses to cars and from typewriters to computers.

Just like the shifts to cars and computers precipitated tectonic shifts in the way people live, conduct business and socialize and resulted in job losses in known and established categories, they opened large numbers of new jobs for those with skills in the new and burgeoning market niches. Have policy makers sought to explain this mega trend to the coalminers and other threatened workers who think they have a new political super-hero with the powers to resuscitate and deliver back their old jobs in large numbers?

The answer isn’t to gut the EPA or pull out of Paris. It is to show leadership, retrain and upskill the coalminers and those in dying industries to fulfil the labour market demand in the areas where new jobs are being created. Equip those who were in steel, coal and car manufacturing to work in the growing areas of green technologies. Instead of building gas and diesel vehicles, metal plants and mining coal, displaced workers will build electric and hybrid vehicles, components for new green equipment, work on the development and deployment of renewable energy storage and long-last batteries, solar panels and other renewable energy technologies and equipment.

The Democrats saw the future, but did not prepare those who most needed it by explaining or retraining those citizens whose jobs had been lost or were under threat. The White House and the Republicans are denying the existence and inevitability of the future, preferring instead to encourage citizens to look back with nostalgia and longing to a past that cannot return. When viewed in this way both parties, the former administration and this one, have failed the public, albeit in different ways. If the jobs are not delivered, the expectant workers will feel a tremendous sense of betrayal.

Attaining the sustainable development goals (#SDGs) and 2030 development platform to which all UN member-states including the USA subscribed, include action on “affordable and clean energy” (goal 7), “industry, innovation and infrastructure” (goal 9), and “climate action” (goal 13). Despite earlier sabre rattling, the U.S has appointed a new Permanent Representative/Ambassador to the United Nations and remains a member of that body. Action on the SDGs includes action on climate change and green technologies, whether one is part of the Paris Agreement or not. In this regard, pulling out of Paris is not quite as effective in resisting action on climate change as one may have been led to believe.

Despite withdrawal, it may not be that easy to circumvent the Paris Agreement. The exigencies of international trade may in fact result in the US having to observe the new rules or approaches which flow out of the Paris Agreement. Those who engage in international trade have to follow the rules which allow the movement of goods in the global market place. The USA is an international trading power. Just like other nations, if new market-access rules come into being, those seeking to engage in trade will have to conform.

The underlying presumption is that the people, jobs and economy of Pittsburgh need protection from the countries which reached agreement in Paris. Surely there is a recognition that Pittsburgh and the other states of the US conduct trade and business with each other and more important, with the rest of the world. Changing emissions standards, labelling requirements, components in goods and equipment, will set new manufacturing and industrial standards. If the US does not meet these new standards, its goods will be blocked from international markets. This is not a farfetched scenario.

When Sony attempted to introduce its then new play station into Europe, the units were stuck in European ports and then had to be recalled. Playstations could not initially enter Europe because the countries of Europe had banned the importation of the cadmium and the batteries of the playstations contained cadmium. The consequence of this was delay of entry of the Sony playstation into European markets, with Sony absorbing the costs of delay, reshipment and review of their manufacturing plants and processes in order to remove cadmium as well as to re-engineer the units to exclude cadmium from the batteries.

It is the knowledge and understanding of this level of complexity and the grasp of how international trade impacts Paris to Portland and Pittsburgh, Pakistan to Paraguay and Pretoria, that has resulted in numerous American organizations, including petroleum companies and diverse agencies, acknowledging the reality of climate change and the legitimacy of and necessity for the Paris Agreement.

Many businesses and states are indicating that irrespective of the position of the White
House and Federal government, they will continue to move toward more green technologies, cut emissions standards and adopt business policies and practices in line with the commitments of the Paris Agreement. This is not sentimentality; it is self-interest. They fully understand that the best way to guarantee sustainability, protect jobs, quality of life, society, economy and profit is to protect the Paris Agreement and the planet’s environment. These organizations are well aware that if they do not keep abreast of developments with renewable energy and other green technologies they will lose profitability, global competitive advantage and market share. They know that the path to “winning” and “great deals” lies via Paris.

There are some wider implications of the US decision on which I have been cogitating. One is the isolationist approach dressed up and disguised as a new form of fervent nationalism. The danger here is that nationalism has great appeal and people can be made to subscribe to it without recognising that it is being used as a veneer for something sinister. People who question the new nationalist mantra may be made to feel disloyal or unpatriotic.

The lessons of history tell us that countries which have opted for isolationist policies have not grown or progressed socially or economically. A second concern is an apparent lack of understanding of the limits of coercion of sovereign governments. One can push a sovereign leader out of the way to get to the front of a photograph but one cannot push aside the will of a sovereign leader and country; nor can one easily push aside the will and agreements made amongst 191 countries.  

Prior to and coming out of the recent foreign tour, we witnessed the casual disclosure of classified information, we saw the U.S president literally genuflect to the Saudi Leader while treating traditional allies of the U.S in such a manner that one leader felt compelled to observe that the old alliance with the U.S as they knew it, is now virtually over. Are we then on the verge of new geopolitical alliances? With which countries will America stand or be aligned? How far will the nationalist agenda be taken and with what consequences? What of America’s traditional allies? And should America need the support of its traditional allies in the future, will they readily help?

The National Intelligence Council of the United States, in one of its reports, points to the fact that “the health of the global economy is increasingly linked to how well the developing world does – more so than the traditional West.” The NIC points to the countries to which power is shifting. It predicts an end to hegemonic power in the way we know it now, forecasts the waning of US power and the rise of China as the dominant global economy. Evolving positions on climate change, social and economic policy and new geopolitical dynamics signal a shift in current and emerging political thought and drivers and will catalyze the building of new relationships.
There has been much discussion about the growing influence of the “developing world,” particularly those countries now classified as BRICS, BASIC, BRICSAM, MINT and the Next Eleven. With the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, the leadership and socioeconomic lens through which climate change and other development issues will be considered and addressed, will be provided by these countries and Europe.
With the US looking more inward, becoming more insular, withdrawing from its previous global leadership role, apparent alienation of allies and given its retreat from leadership on climate change, which is simultaneously the greatest existential threat, economic and resetting opportunity of our time - is the US sowing the seeds, not for its own greatness but for the greatness of other countries? Are we truly looking at the emergence of a “new world order?” How much time will it need to take shape? And what will it ultimately look like?
Meanwhile least developed countries and small island developing states are very much on the front line of climate change impacts. The global community has reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement and its voluntary multilateral objectives on #climateaction. Let us all remember that just as leaders are pledging to shrink the carbon footprint of their countries, as individuals we have a responsibility to behave in ways that reduce our personal ecological footprints.

 Let us act on that responsibility. 


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