The Paris Climate Accord is a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was agreed to by 195 countries in December 2015 and seeks to limit global warming to less than 2ºC above preindustrial levels. The agreement established a framework for countries to identify individual goals to reduce climate pollution and action plans to identify how it would achieve these goals. 

The United State’s withdrawal from this historic agreement should not come as a surprise, since it was a central promise of the Trump campaign. United States leadership on climate change was critical in negotiating the Paris Accord, and our withdrawal will be a loss, but I am confident that with continued commitments of state and local governments and corporate leadership, the United States will continue to make progress on reducing climate pollution.

Here are ten take-aways from today’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord:

1.  Withdrawal will impact our international influence. The leadership of the United States and China was instrumental in the success of the Paris Accord.  Now that it is in force, the concern is that countries that are on the fence might also choose to leave the agreement.  Note that, of the 195 countries that signed on to the Paris Accord, only Syria and Nicaragua failed to ratify the agreement.  International policy experts agree that United States withdrawal from the agreement would greatly impact our influence on the international stage, and that China and the EU would take the lead in persuading other nations to continue their commitments under the agreement. 

2. Other countries remain committed.  United States emissions account for 18% of  global greenhouse gas pollution. China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluter, accounts for about 25%.  In anticipation of the United States leaving the agreement, Chinese leaders announced that they are redoubling their commitment to the goals of the Paris Accord.  According to the Washington Post, both China and India look set to overachieve their Paris Agreement climate pledges, and if they succeed, it could cancel out any increased emissions from the United States. This is not likely to change any time soon. China has been investing widely in renewable energy and closing down polluting coal plants in large part because the air pollution is so bad it is significantly impacting public health (reportedly, 1.6 million deaths a year) and their economic productivity.

3. Trump can issue an executive order to withdraw from the Paris agreement, but, once initiated, withdrawal will take time to complete. President Trump can issue an executive order to order withdrawal from the Paris agreement because President Obama entered into the agreement using his executive authority, without going to Congress for ratification as you would a treaty. Under the rules of the agreement, formal withdrawal takes four-year to complete, so by the time the process is over, there may be a new President in the White House. In addition, although the Paris Agreement “entered into force” on November 4th, the provisions don’t become binding until 2020. This means that if the United States elects a new president in 2020, the country could rejoin and not be too far behind the rest of the nations. 

4. The Trump Administration will set back Federal leadership on greenhouse gas reduction whether or not we are part of the accord. Whether we are in the Paris agreement or not, Trump has begun the process of reversing many of the regulations, policies and investments that formed the basis of the United States’ plan to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.  While it will take time to achieve some of the specific rule and policy changes, the result will be that the federal government action designed to transition the country to a low carbon future will largely be on hold.  This is not great news insofar as we already know that nations will have to offer stronger long term pledges at the 2020 global “stock take” when, under Paris, the signatories consider whether they are on track to meet the global goals.

This has happened before. This is the second time that the United States has withdrawn from an international climate agreement following an election that gave control of the White House to a different political party. George W. Bush abandoned the 1997 Kyoto accord that was negotiated by the Clinton administration. Just as we saw after withdrawal from Kyoto, the void in national leadership will be filled by cities, states and the private sector who will continue to innovate and advance ambitious climate pollution reduction policies.

5. Even with the Trump Administration walking away from international agreements and working to reverse GHG rules, there will still be progress on climate in the US. While action may be slowed, there will still be progress on climate change in the United States because of state and local government and corporate commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and because of changes in the energy markets.

6. States and local leadership matters. More than thirty states, including Vermont, have adopted plans with aggressive goals for investing in renewable energy, and for reducing climate pollution.  These states are red and blue, and include a majority of the U.S. population and economic productivity.  If states implement their plans then the country will be on track to meet our global commitment to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Some states, like California, New York and Vermont have even entered into international agreements of their own, committing to ambitious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. We can expect California, the fifth largest economy in world, to take a more visible leading role in the international climate arena as the federal leadership shrinks.

7. Businesses are demanding leadership on climate. A growing number of corporations are including greenhouse gas reduction as part of their corporate sustainability goals.  A group of CEOs urged Trump to stay in the climate agreement.  Others publicly announced their own emission reduction goals.  These include multinational corporations including Apple, Kellogg, Nike, Google, Microsoft, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble and many others. They know that addressing emissions strengthens their competitiveness, creates jobs, and ultimately, reduces business risk.

8. The market is at work: The US energy sector has changed making low carbon alternatives cost-competitive. Energy markets are unlikely to change, even with a rollback of climate policies by the White House, so that the United States electric sector will continue to green as utilities convert to less polluting energy sources.

New reports show the world’s greenhouse gas emissions continued to stay flat for a third year in a row, largely because inexpensive natural gas replaced dirtier fuels like oil and coal.

In the United States alone, coal generated 30% of the country’s electricity in 2010, and today it counts for less than 20%. This trend is expected to continue, with recent announcements that two of the nation’s largest coal-fired power plants will be closing by 2019. Even in coal country the utilities are investing in renewable energy.

At the same time, renewable energy is booming.  Costs of wind and solar energy continue to drop. In April, Moody’s Investors Service reported that the average cost of wind power in the Great Plains states fell to nearly $20/MWH, in contrast to coal which costs about $30/MWH.

Innovations in battery storage technology are anticipated to offer even greater opportunities to scale up investment in renewable energy. In addition, so long as natural gas remains inexpensive, it is unlikely that utilities will invest in new coal plants, or will invest in upgrading existing plants.

9. Renewable energy creates jobs and drives economic growth. Across the country renewable energy investments and energy efficiency have contributed to local economic development. There are more than 400,000 jobs in solar and wind, alone. Even for a small rural state like Vermont, the clean energy sector has become a major economic driver, employing nearly 18,000 workers. 

10. Attitudes about climate change in the US are also changing. A recent report from the Yale’s Center for Climate Communication shows that 70% of Americans agree climate change is happening. Over half surveyed believe climate change is mostly caused by human activity, and 75% support regulating carbon pollution.

It will surprise no one that 80% of Vermonters hold these views, but even in the reddest states, like Texas and Oklahoma, well over half of those surveyed support regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

It is important to remember that climate action matters.  Experts say that an increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius in the planet's temperature could bring about irreversible consequences, including a rise in sea level, super-storms, like Sandy, and crippling heat waves.  

Despite today’s setback, we can, and must, continue our efforts to reduce climate pollution. State and local governments must continue to advance ambitious climate goals by adopting policies and making investments to drive a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. With California taking the lead, strict rules requiring the sale of efficient cars will ensure that auto manufacturers continue to innovate, developing a variety of low carbon and no carbon vehicles to meet growing consumer demand. Universities, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector will continue to drive technical innovation, and corporate leaders will continue to demand green energy and look for greater efficiency in their operations and supply chains. With every sector doing its part, withdrawal from the Paris Accord does not have to mean that we fail to achieve its important goals.

Deb Markowitz is a visiting Professor at the UVM Rubinstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and a Gund Institute affiliate. She's the former Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.


Deb Markowitz