WASHINGTON ― Exactly one year ago, President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, ending months of reality TV-style suspense about what the administration would do as he handed a victory to the fossil fuel industry.
The U.S. is now the only country to reject the Paris Agreement ― though it can’t formally pull out until November 2020. But that hardly makes the U.S. the world’s only climate outcast.
Rather, it makes the U.S. one of the only countries that is being honest about its failure to live up to the pact.
By signing the agreement in 2016, nearly 200 countries committed to helping prevent global temperatures from increasing by 2 degrees Celsius, the “magic number” scientists say the world must stay below to prevent the very worst effects of climate change.
The U.S. ranks alongside Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Ukraine as “critically insufficient” in terms of meeting the Paris Agreement’s baseline goals, according to Climate Action Tracker, a Berlin-based project that monitors national emission plans. Canada, China and Japan are listed as “highly insufficient.” Even the peaceful mountain kingdom of Bhutan, whose forests already absorb three times more carbon dioxide than its 700,000 citizens produce yet still pledged to plant more trees and use more electric vehicles, ranks only as “compatible.”
The only countries deemed “compatible” with the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious plan to keep the planet from warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels are Morocco, which just opened a massive new solar plant, and Gambia, which rolled out the kind of aggressive renewable energy targets considered rare among developing countries. No nation qualified as a “role model,” which the organization defined as “more ambitious than what is considered a fair contribution.”
Yet the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions has had little to no effect on the country’s projected emissions through 2030, said Niklas Höhne, a partner at the Netherlands-based NewClimate Institute, one of three nonprofits spearheading the Climate Action Tracker. That’s largely because natural gas is already replacing coal in many U.S. power plants, which reduces carbon dioxide output but increases emissions of methane.
“There’s still more and more renewables coming online, too, which is an encouraging signal,” he said.
Höhne said Trump’s announcement that the U.S. was backing out of Paris has had little effect on other countries’ climate policies. The United Kingdom, despite considering relaxing environmental policies after exiting the European Union, is on track to lower emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and made headlines by going three days without burning coal for electricity in April. Russia remains the only country among the world’s 20 biggest economies that hasn’t ratified the Paris Agreement. (The deal required at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions to take the additional step of ratifying, or formally signing on, before the agreement could take effect. The U.S. was among the ratifying countries.)
China’s emissions are increasing, but President Xi Jinping capitalized on global criticism of Trump’s pullout to tout his country’s plans to help fund renewable energy projects overseas. Last year, China joined Britain and France in committing to phase out fossil fuel-powered automobiles. And China announced in January that it planned to plant 6.66 million hectares of new forest in 2018 ― an area roughly the size of Ireland ― to fight climate change.
Still, the disappearance of U.S. pressure to adopt clean energy and reduce emissions has had some impact. For example, smog-choked Vietnam, one of the fastest-growing and most energy-hungry countries in East Asia, is writing a new national energy development plan this year, and faces heavy pressure from Chinese financiers to build more coal plants.
At a panel discussion Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Todd Stern, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for climate change, said Trump signaling that the U.S. is on its way out has had a “damaging impact” on both negotiations and ambition.
“In the absence of the United States, you have a phenomenon of a fair number of countries, I think, trying to pull back a little bit from some of the things that were agreed to, some of the compromises that were reached in Paris,” he said. “Countries in many cases extended themselves maybe past even the point where they were entirely comfortable. But they saw that this was a big moment.”
The good news, Stern said, is that every other country is committed to remaining a part of the treaty.
“They’re determined to go forward,” he said at the panel, hosted by the World Resources Institute. “They want to implement the agreement. But don’t underestimate the negative side of the U.S.’s position.”
Selwin Hart, Barbados’ ambassador to the United States, said that had it not been for the leadership of the U.S., the Paris accord would not have been as ambitious as it was. And while it’s “imperative to have the U.S. at the table,” other countries aren’t going to wait to take action, he said.
Last week, the Caribbean island nation elected its first female prime minister, Mia Mottley of the Labour Party, who has said she is committed to find a way for Barbados to become 100 percent carbon neutral by 2030. It would be the first island in the world to do so.
“For us, climate change is not some esoteric, scientific debate or discussion,” Hart said. “It’s a reality. In 2017, we saw some of the most devastating and destructive hurricanes that we’ve ever seen in our entire history.”
Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said he thinks the world has stood firm in its efforts to address the global challenge following Trump’s decision last year.
“Countries like China see it as an opportunity to assert moral authority in the vacuum created by Trump’s threatened exit,” Mann wrote via email. “Needless to say, Trump has made the U.S. a pariah overseas, the skunk at the garden party as the only country in the world now threatening not to honor the Paris accord.”
In a paper published last week, researchers at Stanford University concluded that failing to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement could cost tens of trillions of dollars in global economic damage. Meeting the goals set in Paris, however, could save the U.S. economy $6 trillion.
In an effort to avoid economic, environmental and health effects, nearly 3,000 cities, businesses, elected leaders and organizations in the U.S., representing 127 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of the economy, have pledged to uphold the Paris accord.