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EU Fills Leadership Void After U.S. Pulled Out Of Paris Climate Agreement


November 3 is the Election Day. November 4 is another big day because that is the day the United States officially withdraws from the Paris climate agreement. President Trump announced this years ago. But there was a process. And it will take until November 4 of this year. What does the U.S. exit mean for efforts to rein in climate change? Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It's worth remembering just how important it was to get the U.S. involved in the Paris Agreement in order for it to succeed. Jake Schmidt with the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund says, for decades, the U.S. was seen as a laggard on climate change.

JAKE SCHMIDT: And so when the U.S. was actually at the front of the train, it changed the sort of mindset of people, which is, oh, if the world's largest economy and this major stumbling block can be onboard with it, then the rest of us should be.

NORTHAM: The U.S. involvement helped bring other major emitters, such as China, to the table. So there was widespread concern when Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw that the hard-fought agreement would unravel. That hasn't been the case, says Christiana Figueres, the former U.N. climate chief.

CHRISTIANA FIGUERES: Well, let me say, four years later, the long, long, long list of countries that have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement remains one.

NORTHAM: Figueres says many nations see it simply not in their interest to leave the agreement.

FIGUERES: They're making a very clear cut, hard-nosed, economic argument - this is the best way to protect jobs and grow the economy.

NORTHAM: Still, Trump's decision has provided cover for some countries to skirt the spirit of the accord.

NICK MABEY: I think the biggest one's probably been Japan. Japan has been a real problem.

NORTHAM: Nick Mabey, the head of E3G, a European environmental group, says Japan has actively provided low-interest financing to build coal power plants at home and in other parts of Asia.

MABEY: And I can't imagine it would've done that without the Trump administration withdrawing from Paris.

NORTHAM: Mabey says Australia, Saudi Arabia and Russia are also outliers. He says China's record is mixed. It's investing heavily in renewables and electric vehicles but is still building most of the world's coal plants. And then there's Brazil. Mabey says it was making good progress on shifting to renewables and curbing deforestation until President Jair Bolsonaro road in on a nationalist wave.

MABEY: And part of his base is in the agrobusiness lobby that wanted to have more access to the Amazon. And I think Trump or no Trump, he was always going to reverse those policies.

NORTHAM: Mabey says the European Union has stepped in to fill the leadership void left by the U.S. departure. It's aggressively setting targets, such as going net zero by 2050. Mauro Petriccione is a top climate official at the European Commission.

MAURO PETRICCIONE: Since the U.S. walked out, we've been carrying the diplomatic task of persuading countries that they can change their policies and finding the resources to support them in that on our own.

NORTHAM: But Petriccione says it would be a lot easier if the U.S. was still involved.

PETRICCIONE: This kind of operation of this magnitude and the resources required - well, without the U.S., it has seriously damaged the international process. There's no question about it.

NORTHAM: The U.S. could always return to the Paris Agreement. But new policies mean it couldn't just pick up where it left off.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.