Editor’s note: This piece is being posted at 9:09 a.m. EST on Wednesday, November 4, with the outcome of the U.S. presidential election and of key Senate election campaigns not yet officially determined.
Today, November 4, 2020, and the day after all votes have been cast in the country’s 2020 general election, the United States officially withdrew from the 2015 international Paris Climate Agreement. The withdrawal, over 3 years in the making, leaves the Paris agreement with 196 signatory nations (every country in the in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, except the U.S.), of which 189 nations have ratified the accords.
Just how important the U.S. withdrawal really is as a practical matter will depend largely on the outcome of the presidential congressional elections, yet to be officially determined.
In the final 2020 presidential debate, President Trump falsely claimed that “the Paris accord – I took us out, because we were going to have to spend trillions of dollars.” In fact, the Paris carbon pollution emission targets from the start have been entirely voluntary and non-binding, and the U.S. had been on track to meet its targets until the past few years, despite Congress’s having passed no legislation with significant federal climate spending.
The withdrawal, announced by the President less than five months after he took office in 2017, was purely symbolic, albeit not unimportant.
A bit of silver lining from the terrible COVID-19 outbreak is that it has put America back on track to meet its Paris carbon emissions target, despite that pledge being null and void for now. If Joe Biden secures the presidential election, the U.S. could re-join the agreement in as little as 30 days of the January 2021 inauguration if, as expected, he chooses to rejoin.
U.S. carbon pollution over the past 4 years
In that October 22 final presidential debate, Trump last month also claimed, “we have the best carbon emission numbers that we have had in 35 years.” That statement is technically true, but only because of the economic and fossil fuel consumption slowdown resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
In the three years prior to the 2020 pandemic, U.S. carbon emissions had been essentially flat. U.S. carbon pollution declined by about 3% in the combined years of 2017 and 2019 as a result of a continued phase-out of coal-fired power generation. Trump has frequently pledged, both as a candidate in 2016 and while in office, to boost the coal industry, so it’s a stretch for his administration to claim credit for a carbon emissions decline driven by shut-downs of coal-fired power plants. Moreover, that decline was largely offset by a 2% increase in U.S. carbon emissions in 2018, driven largely by cold winter weather that led to higher energy consumption to heat buildings.
With U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement official as of today, real impacts will rest solely with outcome of 2020 presidential election.
Taken together, those three years were a setback from the 1.3% per year declines in American carbon pollution over the prior decade. However, the economics of rapidly falling wind and solar energy prices, in combination with relatively cheap natural gas, prevented increasing U.S. carbon emissions, notwithstanding the Trump administration’s aggressive rollback of environmental regulations, including several key Obama administration climate rules.
And so, as of the end of 2019, with its carbon pollution stuck at 12% below 2005 levels, the U.S. had fallen off pace for meeting its Paris targets (26-28% below 2005 emissions levels by 2025). To get back on track, America will need to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least another 15% below 2020 levels by 2025.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has estimated that U.S. carbon pollution will decline 10% in 2020 as a result of slowed economic growth resulting from COVID-19 impacts and associated local government restrictions, but EIA also forecasts that emissions will rise by 5.4% in 2021 as the economy recovers. That result would put U.S. emissions in 2020 21% below 2005 levels and 17% below in 2021. The U.S. then would still have to cut carbon pollution 2.8% per year between 2021 and 2025 to meet its original Paris targets. Without final regulations and/or enactment of federal climate legislation, that outcome is unlikely.
What about the future?
The Rhodium Group, a research firm, has estimated that if left in place, the Trump administration’s regulatory repeals will increase U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 1.8 billion tons by 2035, 3% higher than they would be absent the rollbacks. Federal climate policies and rules can be changed over time between now and 2035, and at this stage, the regulatory rollbacks have had a relatively small impact on American carbon pollution.
A recent study in Nature Climate Change found that “with a [global] economic recovery tilted towards green stimulus and reductions in fossil fuel investments,” the global warming resulting by 2050 could be lessened by 0.3 degrees Celsius (0.54 degrees Fahrenheit). Another new study in Science found that if governments spend 12% of their currently-pledged coronavirus stimulus funds on low-carbon investments over the next four years, global emissions would be on track to meet the ambitious Paris target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial temperatures.
Much U.S. stimulus relief funding passed by Congress in 2020 has been funneled to the oil and gas industry and not to the clean energy industry. To correct that imbalance, short-term 2020 U.S. pollution cuts will only be maintained only if future stimulus spending is targeted instead to direct investments in low-carbon technologies. How likely is that? It depends largely on whether the White House and both houses of Congress are so inclined, again an assessment that will have to await final election outcomes.
Other countries, states, and groups have stepped into the climate leadership void left by the U.S. federal government in recent years. An American coalition including 10 states, 291 cities and counties, and 2,281 businesses and investors created the “We Are Still In” declaration of support for climate action. Separately, the states of California, Louisiana, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, and Washington have each set a target for net zero emissions by 2045 to 2050. So have the countries of Uruguay (by 2030) Austria, Iceland (by 2040), Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, the European Union, Fiji, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea (by 2050), and, crucially, China (by 2060).
Few should doubt that the past four years have been a setback for America’s contribution to curbing the climate crisis. But the economic impacts of the coronavirus epidemic have put the U.S. in a position to perhaps still meet its Paris pledge, if the federal government resumes its efforts to do so.
In addition, numerous businesses, cities, states, and other countries and many private sector interests have stepped up efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and long-term market trends in the domestic and global economies appear likely to give impetus to those efforts. But in the event of further delays in implementing serious American climate policy initiatives, the Paris targets almost certainly would slip out of reach.