U.S. Emission Reductions Slowed After Trump Pulled Out Of Paris Accord

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The smokestacks of a coal-fired power plant near Emmet, Kan. in September 2020. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

Charlie Riedel/AP

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Charlie Riedel/AP


Falling farther behind

U.S. emissions are part of the problem. When President Trump took office, the U.S. appeared to be nearly on track to reduce its emissions as promised, says Andrew Light, a former climate official in the State Department and a professor at George Mason University.

Under the Paris agreement, the U.S. said it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% by 2025, compared to 2005 emissions levels.

«If we’d stayed on the path we were on and did nothing to stop the policies put in place by Obama and Biden, then we would have hit the low 20s,» says Light. Instead, the Trump administration has moved to roll back limits on emissions from cars, trucks and power plants in the U.S., and encouraged new fossil fuel investment domestically.

Light says the U.S. is currently on track to reduce emissions by about 17% by 2025, in large part because of actions by local governments and corporations. «That’s not what we had articulated in terms of [the] Paris [agreement],» he notes. «There’s a gap there.»

In many ways, the Trump administration policies have signaled America’s return to its longtime status as a climate laggard. The U.S. failed to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and U.S. emissions continued to rise well into the 2000s when most European countries had already peaked.

It was only under the Obama administration that the U.S. position in international climate negotiations changed.

«When the U.S. was actually at the front of the train, it changed the sort of mindset of people,» says Schmidt, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. When the U.S. started making promises about cutting its own emissions, it helped bring China and other big producers of greenhouse gasses to the table.

«If the world’s largest economy, and this major stumbling block, can be on board with it,» he says, explaining the thinking, «then the rest of us should be.»

Ripple effects

Since the U.S. announced it was leaving the Paris agreement, some countries that already had a tenuous commitment to climate action backed off even more. Australia, Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia are not significantly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and so far most countries have not announced plans to dramatically enhance their emissions targets.

Meanwhile, some of the world’s biggest economies continue to effectively export their emissions. The U.S. has doubled down on exporting oil and gas — a trend that began under the last administration. And China, Japan and India continue to invest in new coal infrastructure.

Burning coal releases about twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas to make the same amount of energy.

«Japan has been a real problem,» says Nick Mabey, the head of the European environmental group E3G. He says Japan has provided low-interest financing to build coal-fired power plants at home and elsewhere in Asia. «I can’t imagine it would have done that without the Trump administration withdrawing from [the] Paris [agreement].»

China’s investments have been more of a mixed bag. The Chinese government has poured money into electric vehicles and renewable energy technology, and it announced this month that China will reach peak emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2060.

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Solar panels in 2019 in China’s Shanxi Province. China’s government announced this month that China will reach peak emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2060.

Sam McNeil/AP

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Sam McNeil/AP

Solar panels in 2019 in China’s Shanxi Province. China’s government announced this month that China will reach peak emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2060.

Sam McNeil/AP

The U.S. departure from international climate negotiations has put more pressure on the European Union. The EU has promised to cut emissions by 40% in the next decade, and get to net-zero emissions by 2050 — one of the most ambitious climate plans in the world.

«Since the US walked out, we’ve been carrying the diplomatic task of persuading countries that they can change their policies and finding the resources to support them in that on our own,» says Mauro Petriccione, the director general of the European Commission’s Climate Change group. But, he says, it would be a lot easier if the U.S. was still involved.

«This kind of operation of this magnitude and the resources required? Well, without the U.S. it has seriously damaged the international process,» he says. «There’s no question about it.»

Future climate leaders

One ray of hope, many climate experts agree, is the growing number of corporations, cities and states that have promised to clean up their supply chains, electrical grids and transportation infrastructure.

Thirteen states have plans to get 100% of their electricity from renewable sources: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. At least 165 U.S. cities have similar plans, according to the group America’s Pledge, which tracks such plans.

Major companies have also announced plans to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from their supply chains. «There’s been this immense explosion of net-zero target setting in the last year,» says John Sottong of the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank.

What all those promises will add up to is still unclear, especially when it comes to multi-decade promises to cut out fossil fuels entirely. «It comes down to claims vs. reality,» says Sottong. But the wave of pledges has climate scientists wondering who will ultimately be in the driver’s seat when it comes to global climate policy.

«There has been a lot of recent momentum,» particularly among large corporations that are promising to reduce their carbon footprints, says Angel Hsu, who studies global climate policy at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. She and her team have been trying to incorporate those promises into their models for future emissions and warming.

«We’ve been really interested in understanding what that momentum actually looks like, and then how to actually measure that,» she says. «It’s easy to pledge, but then how many of them have actually adopted these targets into legislation, or have some sort of plan?»

  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • paris agreement
  • United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  • climate change

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