President Trump on June 1 took the dramatic step of removing the US from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement – the product of many years of diligent and difficult negotiations among 197 nations around the world, striking a major blow to worldwide efforts to combat climate change.
Framing his decision as “a reassertion of America’s sovereignty,” he said, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Under former President Barack Obama, the US had agreed to reduce polluting emissions by about 1.6 billion tonnes by 2025. But the targets are voluntary.
The US is the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon, behind only China. Beijing, however, has reaffirmed its commitment to meeting its targets, recently cancelling construction of about 100 coal-fired power plants and investing billions in wind and solar projects.
Scientists claim that the Earth is likely to reach more dangerous levels of warming sooner as a result of the US President’s decision. Calculations suggest the withdrawal could result in emissions of up to 3 billion tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in the air a year — enough to melt ice sheets faster, raise seas higher and trigger more extreme weather.
This is not the first time that the US is moving away from a global good. The US signed but never ratified the Kyoto Protocol – citing many of the same reasons as President Trump (large, developing countries are held to lower standards and this will put the US at a competitive disadvantage).
But the US did spearhead the response to the ozone layer hole in the 1990s. When chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) emitted by air conditioning and refrigerants were creating a massive hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, exposing the Earth to dangerously high levels of UV rays, then President George H W Bush led the way on a moratorium of CFCs that solved a dangerous problem.
Even before the Paris Agreement was signed in December 2015, market forces and policy measures were starting to tilt the world toward a lower-carbon future. Solar energy, wind and energy storage are expanding rapidly. Yet Trump’s decision could have a range of consequences for humanity.
Part of the uncertainty stems from how the climate system will respond to humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we are lucky, the climate will be less sensitive than scientists think is most likely; if we are unlucky, it will be more sensitive. But most of the uncertainty arises from how the other signatories of the Paris Agreement and the global economy will respond to Trump’s decision.
- Optimistic Scenario
The Paris Agreement’s long-term goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, or about 0.5 to 1.0 degrees C above the current global average temperature.
Current policies in the US are adequate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to about 16% below 2005 levels by 2020. Further, under the terms of the Paris Agreement, US departure will not take effect until November 4, 2020 – a day after the next presidential election.
Moreover, the planet will not notice much. Over the five years between 2020 and 2025, the US will emit a total of about 2.5 billion more tonnes of carbon dioxide — equivalent greenhouse gases than it would if it got on the earlier committed climate path. That’s about the same as a 6% increase in one year’s worth of global carbon dioxide emissions.
If, after Trump, the US rejoins a healthy global climate regime and shifts with a few years’ delay on to an emissions trajectory consistent with Paris’ long-term goals, then the climate will not be much harmed. China and Europe also appear to be ready to take up the mantle of climate leadership that the US is abdicating. So, Trump’s move may prove largely symbolic.
- Pessimistic Scenario The Paris Agreement would not have happened without US leadership. Perhaps, despite the efforts of China and Europe, it will fall apart without the US.
By the middle of the century, climate models indicate that global mean temperature would likely be 0.5-1.6 degrees F warmer than today under the Paris path, but 1.6-3.1 degrees F warmer under the Trump trajectory. Models also show that, by the last two decades of this century, temperatures would have stabilised under the Paris path, while the Trump trajectory would likely be 4.4-8.5 degrees F warmer.
Sea-level projections by various groups indicate that global average sea level at the end of the century would likely be 1-2.5 feet higher under the Paris path than in 2000.
Emerging science about the instability of the Antarctic ice-sheet suggests it might be three to six feet higher – or even more – under the Trump trajectory. Due to the slow response of the ocean and ice-sheets to changes in temperatures, the Trump trajectory would lock in many more feet of sea-level rise over the coming centuries – quite possibly more than 30 feet.
Quantitative risk analyses show that warming would impose costs on human health, on agriculture and on the energy system. It would increase the risk of civil conflict globally. Rising seas would reshape coastlines around the US and around the world. Experts argue that the brutal civil war in Syria was spawned by global warming-induced famine.
That’s because efforts by cities, states and companies are already under way to keep up the spirit of Paris. We’re at a point where ecological forces such as climate change are increasingly driving economic behaviour. Moreover, there are trends in force that will likely limit the practical effect of Trump’s decision and, in fact, may make it almost meaningless over time, for three reasons.
First, states, cities and corporations in the US can set carbon targets on their own that meet (or ideally beat) global goals. If more cities, states and corporations commit to ambitious environmental goals, then Trump not signing the accord looks less important – and may, ironically, kickstart more innovation.
Second, those cities and states that accomplish ambitious environmental improvements will benefit from new technology and cleaner environments and will probably attract highly educated citizens who appreciate progressive development. And that in turn could pressure other communities to follow suit as they witness the benefits.
Third, the rest of the world will act likewise, so the countries that lead with green technology will have a significant competitive advantage in the future (both domestically and internationally).
On June 3, two days after Trump announced withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, Prime Minister Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to achieve emissions reductions beyond their nations’ commitments under the Paris Agreement.
This pledge puts India three years ahead of schedule to achieve its ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contribution’ to the Paris Climate Agreement. Instead of shifting to 40% renewables by 2030, India now expects to surpass this goal by 2027.
India’s renewable energy agenda aims to increase grid-tied renewable energy capacity from
roughly 57 gigawatts in May 2017 to 175GW in 2022, with most of the increase coming through a major expansion in solar. India’s installed capacity for solar energy has tripled in the last three years to its current level of 12GW. It is expected to jump by more than 100GW over the next six years, and increase further to 175GW before 2030.
Coal currently provides nearly 60% of India’s of total installed electricity generating capacity of 330GW, but the government projects it will decline substantially as solar power ramps up. In May 2017 alone, Gujarat, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh cancelled energy plants powered by coal with a combined capacity of nearly 14GW of power.
As the United States retreats from international action on climate with a bewildering lurch toward coal, other countries are assuming leadership.