How Donald Trump Helped the Paris Climate Deal Become Law Ahead of Schedule

November 4, 2016, 7:44 PM UTC
A rally on the Champs de Mars in Paris last December during COP21, the United Nations conference on global warming.
Francois Guillot—AFP/Getty Images

The U.N. global climate deal known as the Paris Agreement came into legal force on Friday, nearly a year after dozens of countries agreed to it in marathon negotiations in the French capital. The goal of the accord is to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Many scientists believe that any increase above that mark will cause major disruption to the Earth’s climate.

So far, 95 countries have signed the deal. That includes the United States. President Obama made climate change a key item of his agenda, pushing China to join the effort, and signing the Paris Agreement in August.

Donald Trump, however, has vowed to withdraw the U.S. from the deal if he is elected President on Tuesday, and has slammed the Paris Agreement on the campaign trail. As far back as 2012—in one of his now-famous tweet-storms—Trump called climate change “bullshit” and a “hoax,” saying that China had fabricated the issue in order to boost their own industries and undermine American competitors.

“It’s a hoax,” Trump told supporters in Hilton Head, S.C., last December. “I want clean, clean crystal water and I want clean air. And we can do that, but we don’t have to destroy our businesses.”

In fact, Trump’s remarks seem to have prompted governments to ratify the climate deal, which has come into effect months ahead of schedule.

As the presidential election has tightened in recent weeks, governments rushed to sign the Paris Agreement, apparently fearing that a President Trump could throw big obstacles in its path if he carries out his threat to pull the U.S.—the world’s biggest energy consumer—out of the deal. Trump’s campaign promise to scrap the U.S. climate commitment has brought opprobrium not only from his rival, Hillary Clinton, but from other countries, too—including major polluters like China. China’s lead climate negotiatior Xie Zhenhua told reporters this week: “I believe a wise leader would understand that policies should conform [to] global development trends.”

Also on Friday, just hours after the Paris Agreement became international law, the CEOs of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative—a group of oil majors from across the world, including BP (BP), Shell (RDS.A), and Total (TOT)—announced they would jointly invest $1 billion over the next decade in trying to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. That is an essential strategy in combating climate change and preventing the catastrophe that governments and activists have been warning about for years.

When 10 major oil companies agree to plow millions into curbing global warming, it would seem like an occasion for environmentalists to celebrate. The response from the environmental community to the oil companies’ announcement was hardly triumphant, however.

While a billion dollars might seem like a large amount, some pointed out that the sum—at $100 million per year—was a tiny fraction of revenues, and little more than the combined salaries and bonuses of the 10 companies’ CEOs.

“What they have done today is say, ‘we don’t care about this,'” said Greg Muttitt, senior advisor to Oil Change International, a Washington-based activist organization that researches the industry’s business practices. “They have gone from saying ‘oil companies will be part of the solution,’ to saying basically, ‘get lost.'”

For the Paris Agreement to come into legal force, it required at least 55 countries, consuming more than 55% of its energy, to sign on to its conditions. Each country has set its own targets to cut carbon emissions enough to keep global warming within a limit of two-degree Celsius.

On Friday, the French government, which hosted last year’s climate talks, celebrated the Paris Agreement’s implementation as a major success, and Paris officials plan to light up the Eiffel Tower in green (with its 20,000 light bulbs) to celebrate.

Through all that, oil companies are now trying to place themselves on the right side of an issue that governments have spent years negotiating—perhaps making sure that they act before a raft of regulations come into effect in dozens of countries. One analyst, speaking anonymously on Friday, said the industry was making sure it was “not falling behind the curve.”

The 10 CEOs met in London on Friday morning to agree on the $1 billion expenditure, called OGCI Climate Investments. In a statement, they said they were “personally committed to ensuring that by working with others our companies play a key role in reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, while still providing the energy the world needs.”

The companies jointly produce about 20% of the world’s oil and gas, and include the China’s National Petroleum Corp., Saudi Aramco, BP, Shell, France’s Total, and others. Conspicuously absent from the organization are any U.S. companies, including major players in the industry like ExxonMobil and Chevron.

But the oil companies will not invest money in replacing fossil fuels—another major gripe of activists. Muttitt said environmentalists had “expected a generous looking gesture” from the 10 companies, for example by plowing money into renewable energy like solar and wind.

Instead, the new money—just $10 million per company per year—will go to boosting the way the companies capture and store carbon emissions during oil production, and reducing the methane gas that’s emitted in producing natural gas, which the industry is promoting as an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum. The money would also go to “improving energy and operational efficiencies” in the industry, the statement said, and working on making all forms of transportation more energy efficient, or greener.

“It’s a very, very important effort,” says Steven Knell, the London-based director of energy at the business intelligence company IHS, which does work for each of the 10 oil companies. He said that by focusing on issues like carbon capture and cutting methane gas, oil consumption would seem “more palatable” to people who are concerned about climate change.

Still, the oil companies’ contribution is a minuscule amount, compared to the trillions of dollars that U.N. climate negotiators estimate will be needed to truly tackle climate change. And even with the Paris Agreement in effect, the commitments from governments so far would allowed the Earth to warm by an estimated 3.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2020—a degree U.N. climate scientists say is far too high.