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Accord pullout unlikely to derail clean energy revolution

WASHINGTON – A U.S. president pulled out of an international agreement aimed at reducing carbon emissions tied to climate change, and everyone concerned about the warming planet howled.

The year was 2001, and the president was George W. Bush.

Since that time, the solar energy industry came to lead the nation in electricity production jobs. Power-producing wind turbines appeared on the Lake Erie waterfront and across the nation. And the coal mining industry started to wither away.

In retrospect, it's clear that Bush's decision to withdraw from the Kyoto climate change agreement did little to prevent a clean-energy revolution.

On Friday, the day after President Trump announced his controversial decision to withdraw the nation from the Paris climate accord the Obama administration agreed to in 2015, even the many critics of Trump's action said it wouldn't stop the fast-moving train that is America's renewable energy industry.

"My son was born on the day President George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto protocol," said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. "It’s a date seared into my brain. He’s 16 now, and since then the world has made enormous progress on climate action, in part, because states governed by Republicans and Democrats alike helped fill the void."

New York was one of those states, due to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's commitment to climate change action years ago – one he doubled down on Friday with an additional $1.5 billion set aside for clean energy projects in the state.

Such moves all around the country give Iwanowicz faith that the nation will continue to embrace a clean-energy future.

"The president cannot stop the progress that is happening," he said.

That wasn't Trump's goal.

Unveiling his decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, the president said he was simply trying to protect American workers.

"Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 according to the National Economic Research Associates," he said.

PolitiFact, the fact-checking news service that partners with The Buffalo News, said Trump's projections were based on faulty assumptions.

Two natural phenomena are powering the clean energy revolution.

The nation added 73,615 solar energy jobs last year, along with 24,650 wind power jobs, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported in January. In fact, there are now far more than two and a half times as many solar jobs in the United States than there are in the nation's coal mines and coal-fired power plants combined.

Buffalo is expected to get more than 1,500 solar jobs in the next few years, with the opening of Tesla's SolarCity facility. Tesla officials declined to comment on Trump's decision, beyond founder Elon Musk's tweet, which said he was resigning from the presidential councils to protest what the president did.

"Climate change is real," Musk said. "Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world."

The Solar Energy Industries Association decried Trump's move. But Dan Whitten, its vice president of communications, said Trump's decision will by no means derail the fast-growing industry.

"The last decade has proven that solar energy and jobs and economic growth go hand in hand in hand, and we believe our industry will continue to thrive based on that reality," he said.

America's solar industry is expected to thrive in part because the federal government is expected to continue offering a 30 percent tax credit for residential and commercial solar energy projects through 2019, before trimming back that tax break early in the next decade.

Wind power is expected to continue growing too.

John F. Hall, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and wind power expert at the University at Buffalo, said the wind power industry is projected to double in size between 2013 and 2020, to double again in the following 10 years, and double yet again in the two decades after that.

One reason for the growth: electricity produced by wind turbines costs less than half as much as that produced by coal-fired power plants.

"A lot of it is pure economics," Hall said.

State and local governments are helping drive those economic forces – none more so than the New York state government led by Cuomo.

The governor initiated a round of clean-energy actions in the wake of Hurricanes Sandy, Lee and Irene early in the decade, said Richard L. Kauffman, chairman of energy and finance for the state.

Cuomo expanded the state's commitment to clean energy in the wake of Trump's decision.

He joined with the governors of California and Washington to commit to meeting the Paris accord's carbon emissions standards. He announced a Climate Careers Initiative that aims to bring 40,000 clean energy jobs to the state by 2020. As part of that, on Friday he committed $1.5 billion to renewable energy projects in the state, and vowed to hugely expand energy efficiency efforts and the installation of solar panels at public buildings.

"As the federal government abdicates its responsibility to address climate change – at the expense of our environment and economy – New York is leading the nation in advancing a clean energy future," Cuomo said.

Mayors have been leading as well.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors' climate change initiative dates to 2005. It has enlisted 95 percent of the nation's mayors – including Buffalo's Byron W. Brown – to work to meet the carbon reductions called for first in the Kyoto agreement and now the Paris accord.

Buffalo worked with the New York Power Authority to improve energy efficiency and cut carbon emissions from city buildings. Brown said such efforts will continue.

"In Buffalo, we stand in solidarity with leaders from across the country in condemning President Trump's retreat from the Paris Agreement and reaffirm our commitment to the global community fighting climate change," the mayor said.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has begun a number of climate-change efforts, including setting carbon emissions benchmarks and moving forward on plans to install solar panels at the county jail in Alden.

Poloncarz made one more big move on the climate change issue Friday, ordering officials to develop a plan to bring the county in compliance with the carbon emissions targets of the Paris agreement.

“The Executive Order I am issuing today reaffirms that Erie County understands the very real threat posed by climate change and, in contrast to Washington, is taking steps against that gathering threat," he said.

Poloncarz established what he called a "sustainable business roundtable" several years ago, and so far 70 local companies have signed on to work with the county to find ways to reduce their carbon emissions.

"The business leaders understand it makes sense, and that they can lower their costs, by reducing their carbon footprint," Poloncarz said.

Companies nationwide are doing the same thing. Companies as diverse as Google and Exxon-Mobil have implemented energy efficiency efforts in recent years, and both backed the Paris agreement.

Poloncarz fears that despite such efforts, the nation will not be able to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement with the Trump administration refusing to implement it.

Poloncarz said that's just part of the damage Trump did by withdrawing from the climate deal.

"It says to the rest of the world that the U.S. is no longer willing to lead," he said.

Other Democratic politicians, including New York's two U.S. senators and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, lashed into Trump for abandoning the climate deal.

But Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, came to Trump's defense.

"The Paris Climate agreement is just another example of a bad deal leftover from the disastrous Obama administration," Collins said. "Each country needed to come up with a plan to reduce emissions, many pledged to essentially do nothing. The United States would have been left to bear the brunt of this agreement, when countries like China continue on with business as usual."

Collins sided with the advocates of the Paris accord on one point, though, and it's a point that will likely reduce the nation's carbon emissions despite Trump's action.

"The United States is, and will continue to be, a leader in energy innovation," Collins said.

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