Part 2 of a series: Revisiting the Paris Agreement
By Eric Margolis
Not only was America one of the 195 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) parties who signed the Paris Agreement, it was a driving force and stout supporter of it-– until last summer, that is, when Donald Trump controversial announced that America would withdraw altogether.
President Trump’s reasoning was that he “wanted to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” and that he was planning withdrawal in order to negotiate a better deal (unfortunately, evidence suggests that Trump is not actually so great at negotiation). But why withdraw when a plurality of Republicans in fact supported the agreement? Trumps’ motivations could range from corporate self-interest to dedication to his increasingly narrow base, but regardless of the impetus, the move is a major blow for worldwide progress, given that the US is the 2nd largest emitter of GHGs, after China, and the largest per-capita emitter.
Beyond reverberating ill effects for US foreign relations, research suggests that the impacts of a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement will actually affect global emissions, making countries worldwide are likely to be less effective and successful in meeting their own NDCs. The US’s burden shifts to other countries around the world, raising the cost of reducing emissions, while also slowing down global pace of technological innovation on climate challenges.
But beyond analyzing the whims of a self-admitted historically inept president, we have bigger fish to fry. Before the US withdrawal, was the US advancing towards meeting its NDCs? What is the current state of US climate policy? Is there hope yet? (Spoiler alert: Yes, there is!)
When the US signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, the party to the UNFCCC announced a strong commitment to reducing Greenhouse Gases. Specifically, the goal was to reduce GHG emissions by 26-28% compared to 2005 levels by 2025. Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. already had solid commitments to climate change policy, and the Paris Agreement reflected an uptick in ambition, albeit not a revolutionary one. Nevertheless, the climate policies under the Paris Agreement and the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan, if implemented completely, would have been sufficient on a global level to help keep warming below two degrees Celsius.
But those projections are out the window.
The useful website Climate Action Tracker has this to say about the US’s current (2018) climate policies:
*Wind and solar are being used at record rates.
*Lower emissions in the power and transportation sectors suggest that US emissions will decrease slightly throughout the early 2020s before leveling off around 2030.
*This current trajectory, under policy revisions taking place under the Trump Administration that encourage the coal industry and limit public action, are “Highly Insufficient” to help the world reach the goal of limiting warming to 2.0 degrees Celsius.
The 2018 and 2020 elections loom large over this discussion. In order to get back on track to curb emissions (latest projections predict no reduction in US emissions over the next decade), America needs a sharp reversal of the Trump administration’s climate policies. Climate policy in the US has historically consisted of research and development to bring clean energy technology to market, fuel and energy efficiency regulations for the private sector, and voluntary participation programs for corporations to reduce their emissions. In spite of the President’s words and actions, the US achieved GHG reductions in 2017, largely under policy implemented under the Obama administration.
And yet many of the Trump administration’s ambitions are coming to fruition in 2018–policy that suggest the US may be prone to rising emissions in the near future. Just last August, the EPA launched a series of policies that effectively prevent proper action on climate change in the US: rollback of fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, attacks on vehicle tailpipe pollution prevention programs, and the elimination of coal emission regulations under Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
It’s not just climate policy that’s on the ballot in the next few elections—it’s the US’s participation in the Paris Agreement itself. The Paris Agreement states that parties can give an official notice of their withdrawal three years after the beginning of the Agreement. That means that Trump can’t formally initiate a withdrawal in November 2019, and in that case, the US would exit formally around the 2020 presidential election. So despite the Trump administration’s disavowal of climate policies, the election of a Democratic President in 2020 would almost certainly mean that the US would continue to participate in the Agreement—along with the much more important reversal of disastrous climate policy.
One more piece of good news is that 21 of 50 states remain on track to meet the NDCs as supported by the US’s original initiatives, keeping the US as a whole roughly 50% on track to meet the targets. Of course, as we learned last time, this means that America is halfway toward reaching a goal that limits warming to two degrees Celsius, which has disastrous consequences all on its own.
The moral of the story is to vote like the climate depends on it—because it does.
Eric is a senior in Davenport College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.