The Trump administration announced last week the formal withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement. This withdrawal is still reversible until Nov. 4, 2020 which, coincidentally, is the day after Election Day. In the meantime, the U.S. is now the only nation removing itself from the accord. This decision is not going to have an immediate impact on emissions and domestic regulations, which have already been altered and apparently weakened in several key areas prior to this withdrawal.
While the rest of the world has signed on – and many in that group have ratified this treaty – only a relative few nations have been reaching accord goals so far.
What might be the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal for our nation and the world?
To begin, the agreement is nonbinding. The signatories have agreed to pursue ambitious goals in reducing greenhouse emissions and keeping mean global temperatures to warming less than 2 degrees Celsius. That is a key goal, because we know the impacts of warming beyond that threshold will be far more damaging than those within that goal. Rising sea levels, for example, would be amplified and accelerated considerably, with grave physical and economic dislocations.
The U.S. is now the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind China and India, but we remain first in emissions on a per-capita basis. This is due to having the world’s largest economy and, in some additional measure, the lifestyle options that offers us. U.S. carbon emissions had gone down significantly in recent years partly due to reduced industrial output during the great recession, and also due to nearly all utilities switching to natural gas from coal-fired power plants. Natural gas is cheaper than coal in the U.S. It has made good fiscal sense for these conversions, which result in carbon dioxide output of only 40% of coal-fired plants. However, U.S. emissions began rising again last year, presumably due to our growing economy and still large dependence on fossil fuels, even with growth in the wind and solar sectors.
Michael Mann, distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, recently expressed some of his thoughts on the U.S. withdrawal to the Real News Network. For Mann, some of the worst effects of the withdrawal will be in the messaging it creates. He has not been pessimistic on what the U.S. has accomplished in the last decade, partly through market forces, and partly through focused efforts to do better.
“Now, if you look at the United States alone, there’s a good chance that we actually are able to meet our Paris commitments just based on what’s happening at the state level, the local level, what companies are doing," Mann said. "There’s enough sort of progress being made at the grassroot level and at the state level that will probably still meet our commitments. The real problem is that by pulling out of the Paris accord, by doing everything he (Trump) can to undo the legacy of the past administration when it comes to climate progress – which means getting rid of the clean power plan that controls carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants; getting rid of the fuel-efficiency standards that have helped us meet our commitments of lowering greenhouse gases in the transportation sector.”
Mann worries we are taking pressure off the largest carbon emitter, China, by signaling we are headed in this direction. China has been making some drastic changes in its future generation of power due to severe public health air pollution crises from burning coal in major cities, its costs, and the economic opportunities it's been pursuing in becoming the leader in solar technology. In recent years, China has heightened its efforts to make these changes, and some of that has been due to global as well as domestic pressure. Now, the U.S., the world’s most important economy, is loosening the screws. After a few years of real progress, China has again added more coal-fired plants into its plans, and its carbon emissions are going back up again.
It is, as Mann and many other scientists and policy planners see it, a matter of leadership that has been abrogated, for the time being.
Even with previous American leadership, not many nations have made that much progress in meeting their goals tied to the Paris accord. The Climate Action Tracker is a project run by three major climate research organizations that is focused on the status of goals as of 2018 in 32 nations, covering about 80% of global emissions. The tracker projects how 2019 levels stand in meeting a significant slowdown in global emissions and mean warming. The numbers are discouraging.
As things stand now, the globe is heading toward much worse climate trouble. But Mann and many other scientists believe we are not yet past some theoretical “tipping point” and that fatalism/doomism could be a disastrous state of mind.
The U.S. and even China HAD been making some progress for a number of years, until this past year. That kind of economic and environmental leadership could have proved to be more infectious with other nations. If the two largest economies had continued moving in the right direction at a good pace, we might have seen an acceleration in other nation's efforts. Even as things are, progress hasn’t stopped. Wind power is approaching an 8% contribution in the U.S., with solar on the increase as well. Solar is becoming very important in China’s great cities because of intolerable, deadly air pollution and economic incentive for China to be the solar technology leader. Other incentives abound to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The effectiveness of these transitions will be a matter of pacing. At least on paper, we have slowed the pacing here.