The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, announced by U.S. President Donald Trump last week, has led to a bitter and divisive debate on its likely impact. How critical is the U.S. withdrawal to global climate action? And what will be its impact on the international system?
Since Trump’s announcement, we have heard dire predictions about the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal on prospects for climate mitigation. Many critics, often in the same breath, have also described the march toward clean technologies and renewable energy as unstoppable. Of course, both of these arguments cannot be simultaneously true. After all, if market forces make the dominance of clean technologies inevitable, then would not either staying or exiting from Paris be largely inconsequential to the future of the planet?
In fact, while market forces and innovation are aiding the transition to clean energy (e.g., the remarkable drops in solar module prices), the same forces have also made extraction of fossil fuels cheaper and easier over time, as evidenced by the hydraulic fracturing revolution. Also, the sheer magnitude and speed needed for the transformation to clean technologies in the global energy system in order to meet climate targets requires coordinated action by states, markets, and societies. Nothing less will do.
This is because climate change, unlike some other global problems, comes with a concrete time horizon derived from the precise quantity of carbon that can be allowed to accumulate in the atmosphere to keep warming below the “safe” threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. Essentially, this means that net carbon emissions need to zero out in a few decades
, and at an appropriately rapid rate. While wind and solar energy prices have dropped dramatically through competitive forces, much more innovation is needed in areas such as energy storage
, steel, petrochemicals, waste and transport. It is not for nothing that an organization as hardheaded as the U.S. Department of Defense was one of the earliest to recognize the challenge of climate change, and it has put in place among the most proactive programs in the nation to green its operations.
The Paris Agreement is a relatively weak pact in which targets are entirely voluntary, nonbinding, and a floor (not a ceiling), presaging more stringent goals that countries will lay out after 2020. There are no penalties for noncompliance; the idea is that countries review each other at periodic intervals, making laggards vulnerable to "naming and shaming." But vitally, Paris provides the first genuinely global framework that can be built upon to tackle what is an extremely complex collective action problem.
Even before Trump was sworn in as president, the United States may not have been on a trajectory to meet its Paris target of reducing emissions from 2005 levels by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. The Clean Power Plan, an initiative under the administration of former President Barack Obama to accelerate the ongoing transition in the power sector away from coal, since early 2016 has been stuck in arcane court battles.
But the most critical setback to U.S. climate action came in March of this year, when the Trump administration issued its executive order
on "promoting energy independence and economic growth." The order rolled back several Obama initiatives
including the Clean Power Plan, regulations on methane leaks from natural gas wells and others. A previous order reversed fuel efficiency standards for automobiles put in place by the Obama team. The Trump team also canceled $2 billion in payments to the Green Climate Fund, which was set up to aid the poorest countries in combating climate change. Taken together these decisions all but assure that the United States would fall hugely short of its Paris targets. The aspirational global goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius is now almost certainly a chimera — and reaching the goal of 2 degrees Celsius will take very hard work.
Thus, Trump did not need to pull out of Paris from the standpoint of his climate goals. His earlier policy shifts had already reversed practically all Obama-era climate policies. Trump's Paris pullout, unless reversed quickly, is nevertheless hugely consequential for two reasons.
First, when the United States (cumulatively the largest and currently the second-largest carbon emitter) backtracks from climate action, other countries must raise their ambitions quickly to keep the planet on track. It's in the early days yet, but it appears that many countries are not even on track to meet their original Paris targets. Canada's emissions are actually increasing due to enhanced oil extraction from tar sands. Australia’s coal-dominated electricity sector is not seeing the sorts of investments needed to meet its targets. Germany is a global leader in renewable energy, but the replacement of nuclear plants with those fueled by lignite and rising emissions in its transport sector means that it, too, is struggling in achieving emissions reductions. Other major European economies such as Poland and Italy are also falling short. And the European Union is quietly pushing for much greater liquefied natural gas imports from the United States to replace piped natural gas from Russia — strategically sensible but adding to net emissions. Ironically, it is China and India that are currently on track to meet or exceed their Paris goals.