A year ago today, President Trump shocked the world by announcing that the United States would be the first and possibly only country to join, but then subsequently withdraw from, the Paris climate change agreement. In his speech, Trump cited “the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country” — even though in fact, each country chooses its own contributions under the agreement.
Trump’s move felt dramatic at the time and was hugely controversial. A year later, though — and despite his administration efforts to roll back environmental protections — there has been little change in the metric that matters most: the nation’s overall greenhouse gas emissions trajectory.
One prominent group studying how countries are faring in their Paris goals, the Climate Action Tracker, just improved its assessment of the United States’ expected performance, rather than downgrading it, citing a continuing reduction of carbon in the electricity sector that is being driven mainly by market forces, rather than Trump policies.
“Although the Trump administration is working hard on rolling back climate policies, we do not yet see an effect on our projections of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Niklas Höhne, a founder of NewClimate Institute and professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “In fact, still it’s the opposite. We have revised our projections for the U.S. in 2030 downward because there have been more renewables online and less coal.”
It’s just one indicator of just how complex it is to assess the effect of Trump’s Paris move. Underscoring that ambiguity, the United States isn’t even out of the Paris agreement yet — it merely announced an intention to withdraw but can’t formally do so until the year 2020.
“It’s hard to say what the impact of all of this has been,” said Jessika Trancik, a climate policy researcher at MIT. “But maybe that is the story.”
Trancik argues that what has really occurred is not a big change in the numbers, per se, but rather a policy vacuum and lack of a “national narrative” around what the United States intends to do about the globe’s biggest environmental problem. Others — international actors, states and cities — have tried to fill that gap but with uncertain results.
The Trump administration, since the Paris withdrawal, has largely lacked a consistent message about climate change (although the White House did consider adopting one after Trump’s speech). Instead it has had many contradictory voices, from the climate change doubt of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to the recent embrace of climate science by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Similarly, while the administration has launched a wave of attempted regulatory rollbacks of Obama policies meant to curb climate change, like the Clean Power Plan, litigation by states and environmental groups makes it unclear how far those will advance. Thus far, market trends that continue to punish coal and reward renewable energy and natural gas remain the dominant driver of the U.S. energy picture.
“We’re on track to meet or exceed the Clean Power Plan goals, and all of that is driven by cheap renewables and cheap natural gas,” said Kate Larsen, who manages climate change research at the Rhodium Group.
The lingering effect of last year’s announcement, however, has still been a climate of uncertainty for business leaders who thought they were supposed to be acting on climate change — and for other countries who thought the world was united.
“Officially all nations have maintained that despite what the U.S. has announced it is going to do, that they are still going to stick with Paris,” said John Sterman, an MIT professor who works with the D.C. based Climate Interactive on projections of where the world is headed on climate change. “That’s the official story, and that’s good. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that behind the scenes, if the U.S. is not going to follow through, other nations are finding it harder to maintain their commitments in view of domestic political pressures.”
Most of all, while the United States has not made any sudden or dramatic turn in its emissions trajectory, that’s not really the point. Even achieving the Obama administration’s Paris goals, of a 26 to 28 percent emissions cut below 2005 levels, would ultimately be too little, at least if the agreement’s formal objectives are to be taken seriously.
The whole world is off course on climate change by that metric, meaning that many countries, including the United States, under-promised in Paris. The world’s commitments thus far, assuming they are realized, would lead to a warming of 3.3 degrees Celsius (5.94 degrees Fahrenheit), rather than the 2 or 1.5 degree Celsius (3.6 or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) targets of the Paris agreement, according to Sterman.
So the United States, as the second largest global emitter of greenhouse gases, would need to do considerably more than President Barack Obama promised to cut its emissions. Instead, it is underperforming even those modest commitments.
The country is currently on course for a roughly 11 to 13 percent decrease in its emissions below 2005 levels by the year 2025, according to a new analysis by the Climate Action Tracker, which is produced by Climate Analytics, the NewClimate Institute and Ecofys. That’s about halfway to the Obama administration’s pledge.
Höhne cautions, though, that it’s early. Attempted Trump rollbacks continue and weakened fuel efficiency standards for cars, if those come to pass, could certainly lead to increased carbon dioxide emissions. One analysis by the Rhodium Group suggests they could add over 100 million tons annually by the year 2035 because of an auto standards rollback alone.
Another analysis, also released last year by the Rhodium Group, found slightly better overall numbers for the United States — a 15 to 19 percent projected cut in emissions by 2025 — but still, well short of the Obama promise.
These figures on the national level, however, are being amplified by intense activity at the state and local level, with Virginia and New Jersey becoming the latest states looking to cut their emissions, new electric vehicle policies in Colorado and California, and much more. Much of this has been an explicit reaction to Trump’s Paris withdrawal.
“There’s a lot that is happening, fortunately,” said Vicki Arroyo, the director of the Georgetown Climate Center. “Nobody would say it’s enough, but at least we’re not losing the momentum in the way we feared a year ago.”
The effects of state and local policies are hard to quantify, and new commitments are still rolling out. Höhne thinks all of this could potentially rescue the Obama administration’s Paris commitment — meaning the United States could still meet its official goal. But not everyone is so sure.
“Cities that are progressive and doing more are in states with pretty clean energy already, or that have made those types of commitments, so it’s hard to know what’s additional,” Larsen said.
In the end, then, despite the uproar over the Paris withdrawal, it’s notable that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are hardly set to explode and the country is still slowly moving toward lower greenhouse gas emissions.
But what Trump’s move did do was create a fog when it comes to what U.S. national policy is or should be — something not even the administration seems to know. The fundamental reality remains that neither the U.S. pledge nor other countries’ commitments under the deal were strong enough to achieve what all those countries said they wanted in the first place. Slow progress didn’t end under Trump, but according to physics, slow progress and the world’s climate change goals are not compatible.