Opting Out of Paris Accord Fortifies Global Warming Battle
July 10, 2017
When President Donald Trump was equivocating about whether to pull out of the Paris Accord, I fervently hoped he would not. When he announced in early June that the U.S. would walk away from the agreement, I was worried that the global effort to mitigate climate change would be seriously set back.
But now, I’ve changed my mind. In fact, I’m grateful.
By the time the president made the announcement, his administration had already been systematically dismantling many of the regulations and programs that would be needed to live up to the Paris Accord commitments. It gutted the Obama administration’s Clean Power Program, green-lighted threatened oil pipelines, opened more federal land to coal mining, and is seeking to weaken automobile fuel efficiency standards. Regardless of the country’s official position, in practice, the U.S. government had already ditched the agreement.
But by clearly establishing its position last month, the Trump administration cleared the way for states, cities, corporations, and many others to step up and declare #We’reStillIn. And that, indeed, is what’s happening.
The energy and focus released since the president opted out of the accord has been impressive. Entities that are stepping up are not just taking a position; they are taking action. Companies, such as Apple, are expanding their commitment to renewables. States, like California, New York, and Washington, are sending representatives to international meetings and doubling down on their own voluntary commitments. New York and other cities are expanding programs that promote energy efficiency and renewables, while creating jobs.
One of the biggest fears leading up to Trump’s announcement was how it might affect the actions of international partners. The Paris Accord is built on voluntary commitments established through peer pressure among the nations. The concern was that if the U.S. pulled out, other countries would feel justified in reneging on their own commitments and the whole thing would unravel. The U.S. is, after all, by far the biggest source of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and the second largest annual emitter (after China).
But these fears never materialized. Just as it did domestically, the president’s announcement has galvanized support for the Paris Accord internationally. Country after country has made strong statements about their intent to meet their commitments. This tweet from a spokesperson for Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was typical: “Now more than ever we will work for global climate policies that save our planet.”
Of course, none of this means that the planet is home free in terms of climate impacts. By most accounts, the Paris Accord doesn’t go far enough. With carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over 400 parts per million (compared to the pre-industrial average of 280 ppm) we’re already playing catch-up.
Cities, states, and corporations can make up for much of the shortfall in federal support for emissions reductions, but not all of it. They are unlikely to come up with the remaining $2 billion the U.S. had committed to developing countries by 2020 to help them decarbonize their own economies. We still need a responsible federal policy on climate, and I sincerely hope the president’s position is just a four-year pause that can be quickly reversed when the next administration takes over.
In the meantime, there are signs that market forces are pushing us in the right direction. The cost of wind and solar electricity generation keeps dropping. This new economic reality, and health concerns from smog, are hastening the retreat from coal as a power source. For example, in India, the state of Gujarat just cancelled plans for a massive four gigawatt coal power project. All over the world, new coal plants are being cancelled or put on hold, and renewable generation is expanding.
The building sector remains a huge opportunity for decarbonization and progress has already been made. In the past decade, we’ve seen lighting energy loads plummet with the LED revolution. We have both a pull from market leaders building Passive House and net-zero buildings, and a push from increasingly stringent energy codes that are being adopted state by state over time.
We still have an enormous challenge ahead of us as we try to minimize the extent of climate change and mitigates its impacts. But with a clear mandate provided, ironically, by an unsympathetic administration, we’re making good progress.