Just over a year ago, 175 countries came together to address climate change, signing the historic Paris climate agreement. Syria and Nicaragua were the only nations who did not sign, but neither was opposed to the mission behind the accord. In fact, Nicaragua refused to sign because they thought the agreement didn’t go far enough. They wanted punishments for offending nations built in as well as more aggressive targets. They basically thought the agreement was toothless, in certain ways they were right.
In Syria’s case, they were (and still are) in the midst of a brutal and controversial civil war. Due to resulting sanctions, it’s extremely difficult for Assad and his associates to travel abroad. It’s also worth noting that the emissions from the U.S. are exponentially greater than both of these countries combined.
So this means as of today, we are the only country not participating because we openly reject science. We are the only country shamefully grasping on to the past by attempting to bolster industries that innovation has rendered obsolete. This move is aggressive regression, a clear and deliberate step backward. It’s as embarrassing, as it reckless, as it is myopic.
It’s bad, really bad.
It’s bad for the rest of the world to see a global leader like the United States not take climate change seriously, and it’s bad that many federal regulations limiting harmful emissions will fall. And the timing couldn’t be any more ominous as a crack in the Arctic shelf grew 11 miles over the past week setting the stage for one of the world’s largest icebergs to crack off.
With all that said, there are a few reasons to be optimistic.
A recent poll by Gallup shows that Americans are more concerned about global warming/climate change than we have been in three decades. And according to a survey conducted in June, 71% of Americans support the Paris Accord. Awareness is rising. We’ve already made progress on cutting carbon emissions, and we can continue to make strides regardless of the moves of this belligerent regime.
In the Paris Accord, the U.S. agreed to cut emissions 26% to 28% from our 2005 levels by the year 2025. We’re already about halfway there:
We have several developments to thank for this.
First, for most of modern history, economy growth couldn’t happen without greater energy consumption. Growth meant more factories or construction and that takes energy. However, U.S. economic growth has “decoupled” from growing energy consumption.
Since 2007, GDP has grown 12% while energy consumption has actually fallen by 3.7%.
Thanks to the shift to an information economy and improving energy efficiency, we’re getting more economic bang for our energy buck. Now the economy can grow without increasing its energy load.
As far as emissions go, the U.S. has also made major progress in switching to renewable energy sources. Renewables now make up more than 12% of the country’s energy production.
States and local districts can still pursue these goals on their own. California recently produced over 67% of its energy from renewable sources for one afternoon. State officials have pursued legislation to target 100% renewable energy by 2045. Yesterday, New York City Mayor Bill Diblasio said his city will uphold the Paris agreement regardless of federal maneuvers. And today, 68 mayors representing 38 million Americans pledged to uphold the commitments in the accord, and governors from New York, California and Washington formed the United States Climate Alliance, with the same goal in mind.
A move this drastic and ill-advised has and will continue to embolden the opposition, and private companies already moving towards more sustainable models have no reason to change course at this point.
The shift to renewable has happened at a faster rate than anyone had imagined. Auke Hoekstra created a chart that compares the International Energy Agency’s forecasts for solar power capacity to the actual build out we’ve seen. Renewables have blown expectations away.
No matter what policies the Trump administration enacts, the biggest driver energy production will always be economics. Rational actors will act in their self-interest to find the cheapest power sources available.
On that front, solar, wind and hydroelectric are cost-competitive with or without subsidies from the government—although a drastic decrease in subsidies will likely slow growth somewhat in these areas. Direct comparisons take a lot of assumptions, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration suggests if a company were to build a plant today to go online in 2022, solar can beat nuclear and coal and is competitive with natural gas (known as advanced combined cycle).
The shift from cleaner burning natural gas away from coal—again driven entirely by cheaper costs—makes a major difference in emissions levels as well.
The cost equation for renewables is drastically different than traditional fuels. Once a solar or wind installation is built, its marginal cost of new energy is essentially zero. This drives electricity prices down and makes running coal plants economical.
For a while now, it hasn’t made any sense to build new coal power plants because renewables made electricity too cheap. Now in some cases, it doesn’t even make sense to run existing coal plants. They’re shutting down all over the northeast.
There can be no more powerful force to reduce emissions than favorable economics that push energy producers in that direction. Trends can change trajectories, but for those of us who are worried—and we all should be worried—it’s important to remember that the populace is never powerless.
It must be noted that none of our progress thus far happened by accident. The government funded renewable research. Scientists have worked hard to improve efficiency. Businesses and municipalities took risks to finance projects. Consumers have expressed their preference for buying from companies with sustainability plans.
And a lot still needs to be done. The country’s electrical grid needs to be redesigned to support a decentralized network of power producers like solar installations. Battery and energy storage technology needs to be designed to provide wind and solar energy when the air is calm and the sun’s not out. It’s now up to us: citizens, consumers, business leaders, governors, mayors, community activists, influencers and every sub-category therein to not only keep us moving in the right direction but to double-down our efforts.
The situation is dire, and there’s no doubt that pulling out of the Paris Accord is a significant blow to our planet. So, forget the federal government. We’ll do it on our own.
The 71% of Americans who supported the accord, show it. Speak out. Protest and boycott businesses that pollute and support and develop sustainable business models. Live as green as possible: cut down on red meat consumption, take public transportation, carpool, buy a hybrid, use LED bulbs, don’t waste energy, and always be aware of your carbon footprint. We can no longer rely on the federal government to guide us in this realm, so let’s hold each other accountable. We’ve made some great progress, but it isn’t nearly enough.
This isn’t the time to pack up and go home, it’s the time to organize.
This piece was written by Matthew Weinschenk and Jesse Mechanic and was previously published on The Overgrown.
Matt Weinschenk has Masters Degree in Applied Economics and works as an investment analyst in Baltimore.
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.