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Trump’s reasons for leaving the Paris climate agreement just don’t add up

President Trump has decided to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

This story has been updated.

President Trump railed against the Paris climate agreement in the White House Rose Garden on  Thursday, but it was hard to reconcile his description of the climate accord with the real one.

“As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the nonbinding Paris accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country,” Trump said — a phrase seeming to contain a logical contradiction. If the agreement is nonbinding, then what burdens can it impose?

And that contradiction gets to the heart of why Trump seemed, on Thursday, not to be arguing against the Paris agreement itself, but rather, against the Obama administration’s pledge under that agreement, in which the United States would cut by the year 2025 its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels.

But the agreement does not require a particular level of emissions cuts for a particular country; rather, the United States and any other nation can choose its own level of emissions reductions.

Former president Barack Obama says President Trump’s administration “joins a small handful of nations that reject the future.” (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“It seems very unnecessary to have to withdraw from the Paris agreement if the concern is focused on the U.S. emissions target and financial contributions,” said Susan Biniaz, who served at the State Department as the United States’ lead climate change lawyer from 1989 until earlier this year. “The U.S. can unilaterally change its emissions target under the agreement — it doesn’t have to ‘renegotiate’ it — and financial contributions are voluntary.”

“If the president believes the Paris agreement is a bad deal for the U.S. because our voluntary emission commitments are more stringent than those of other large emitters, the U.S. can reduce the ambition of our domestic policies while still remaining part of the agreement, rather than giving up our seat at the table and undermining U.S. leadership and credibility,” added Jason Bordoff, who heads the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Similarly, Trump argued that the United States would try to “begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or [a] really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.”

But it seems near-impossible to reassemble every country in the world to start from scratch on the Paris agreement, when those countries are already busily implementing it.

“The notion that other nations would ‘renegotiate’ Paris is absurd, since they have already bent over backwards in the Paris deal to accommodate all major U.S. priorities, including voluntary emissions limits, action by developing countries and a nonlegally binding agreement,” said Paul Bledsoe, who served as a climate policy adviser in the Clinton administration and is now a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy.

“Other countries are very unlikely to be interested in renegotiating the Paris Agreement or in negotiating an alternative agreement,” added Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, in a statement. “But the United States still retains the right to adjust the terms of its participation in the Paris Agreement by revising its target.”

And then, there were Trump’s claims about how other countries, such as China and India, would presumably take advantage of the Paris deal, to the United States’ disadvantage.

Niklas Höhne, a professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and a founder of the NewClimate Institute, commented by email that this part of the speech, too, didn’t add up:

As a scientist, I was amazed by the many wrong assertions that he used. He said that China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. This is true in principle, but China canceled the building of new coal power plants and absolute coal use has declined in three consecutive years. He said that India may double their coal production, but also India is slowing its growth of coal use and just stated that the recent coal plants in construction may not be necessary until 2022.

And then there are Trump’s assertions about what the agreement would actually do to the climate.

“Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations it is estimated it would only produce a two tenths of one degree – think of that, this much – Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100,” Trump said.

But that’s not correct, according to John Sterman, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works to analyze climate change scenarios, and Andrew Jones, a researcher with the think tank Climate Interactive.

Their analysis shows that the current country level pledges under the Paris agreement would reduce the planet’s warming by the year 2100 down from 4.2 degrees Celsius (7.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to 3.3 degrees Celsius (5.9 degrees Fahrenheit), or nearly a full degree Celsius.

And of course, that’s just the beginning — the Paris agreement is structured so that it increases the ambition of the countries that belong to it over time, always in a voluntary manner, asking each to do what it can. So over time, the agreement’s ability to reduce the warming of the planet should improve.

And that will probably still be the case — even though, for now at least, the United States won’t be a part of it.