Why Syria, Nicaragua – and now the US – aren’t part of the Paris climate agreement

In keeping to his controversial campaign promise, US President Donald Trump will officially withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, a historic climate change accord brokered by representatives of almost 200 countries at the 2015 COP21 summit in Paris.

Despite being the second greatest emitter of polluting greenhouse gases in the world, the US will now join only two other countries party to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change not participating in the agreement – Syria and Nicaragua.

The reasons behind Syria’s lagging are relatively straightforward.

The country has been embroiled in a devastating civil war since 2011, and some of the heaviest action to occur in the last seven years coincided with the COP21 negotiations in December 2015.

Furthermore, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is subject to intense sanctions imposed by the US and EU member states, sanctions which ultimately prevent government representatives, including President Assad himself, from travelling overseas to countries other than its closest allies.

On a practical basis, it would be all but impossible to implement emission mitigation strategies in a nation violently divided between a government accused of a wide array of human rights abuses and multiple sectarian rebel and religious extremist groups.

The Central American country of Nicaragua, which ranks 131st on the US Department of Energy’s list of carbon dioxide emitters, refused to sign on because its leaders believed the accord “wasn’t tough enough” in dealing with the existential threat posed by global warming.

While the ultimate goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep global temperatures “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels”, national commitments, otherwise known as “intended national determined contributions”, are voluntary.

This means that the 194 remaining UNFCCC nations signed onto the agreement will not be officially penalised if they fail to meet their commitments.

Paul Oquist, who represented Nicaragua at the Paris talks, told Climate Home in 2015 that Nicaragua would not commit to a system of voluntary responsibility.

“We don’t want to be [an] accomplice to taking the world to three to four degrees and the death and destruction that represents,” he said.

Nicaragua also believes that more responsibility should be taken by the countries doing the most damage, such as China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, and others.

President Trump has taken a differing point of view, claiming that the agreement ultimately disadvantages the United States while benefiting other countries.

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said during his announcement in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday.

“I will work to ensure America remains the world’s leader on environmental issues but under a framework that is fair.”

According to President Trump, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will save up to 2.7 million American jobs, 400,000 of which are in the manufacturing industry.

The figure is based on a report carried out by the consulting firm National Economics Research Associates (NERA) and is, according to experts like Yale economist Kenneth Gillingham, a gross exaggeration.

“It’s not something you can cite in a presidential speech with a straight face,” said Mr Gillingham.

“It’s being used as a talking point taken out of context.”

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