WYSO

Commentary: The U.S. and The Paris Agreement

Jun 2, 2017

The Trump administration announced Thursday that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, fulfilling a campaign promise he made repeatedly. Sustainability commentator Bob Brecha has this response:

Even though candidate Trump promised to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, there was some hope that calmer and better-informed voices might prevail once Trump took office, but this apparently did not happen.

Credit Joe Flood / Flickr Creative Commons

A globalized world doesn’t mean only freedom to trade across borders. It also implies that there are shared responsibilities for countries when they interact with one another. This is particularly important with environmental issues like climate change, that have consequences spanning the globe.

For 25 years the world community has been working hard to craft climate agreements that try to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. At the same time, there is a clear recognition that developing countries need access to energy, and the best option is to make sure that the energy is renewable and sustainable – not fossil fuels.

The Paris agreement, signed in 2015, is the culmination of these efforts by the world community. Together with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, there is a broad agreement, from all types of countries, that we should work together to avoid climate change impacts as much as possible. The remarkable thing about the Paris Agreement compared to earlier efforts is that more and more of the world is on board, including China and India. Those two countries are moving away from coal – the worst source of greenhouse gas emissions – more quickly than expected.

Up to now, the US has been reluctant to sign onto any agreement that allowed China to avoid commitments. But now, that excuse has disappeared. Essentially, what the US and others have agreed to in Paris is that we will develop targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions over the next decades. In our case, we pledged to reduce by about 25% in the next decade. The European Union already emits much less per capita, and committed to much more stringent targets, that they are on the way to meeting. One key point is that these targets are voluntary, and meant to be adjusted over time – an imperfect approach, and likely not enough to meet overall climate change avoidance goals, but it’s still a start.

So now the Trump administration has decided that even these modest steps are too much for our country to undertake. However, if China takes the lead along with Europe, and perhaps even India, in implementing energy and energy efficiency technologies, that will hurt the US economy in the long term – and maybe the short term, too. Renewable energy job creation is happening at a much higher rate than for jobs in the fossil fuel sector. Even coal mine owners don’t believe the Trump administration rhetoric about bringing back large numbers of coal jobs, and they’ve said so publicly. 

There is some good news in spite of the announcement to leave the Paris Agreement. The move to renewables and away from carbon-based energy is going quickly, with or without the U.S. government. In fact, within the U.S., state and local governments, as well as private energy consumers are leading the way. Both Republican and Democratic politicians have come to see that renewable energy is not necessarily a politically divisive issue. And did I mention that lots of jobs are being created in the renewable energy industry? That’s always a good way to catch the ear of a politician, no matter which party she or he represents. There is another possible silver lining within this decision to turn our backs on the work of our closest allies and other countries around the world. It’s possible that if the U.S. were to remain in the agreement, we would try to hinder progress as time goes on. With the U.S. outside the agreement, we have no further say in future targets. I don’t like to have to frame the decision in that way, because I believe our country has often been a leader in technological developments, and I don’t want to see us lose that edge. In the end, many people in the U.S. are already working toward the goals expressed in the Paris Agreement. Stepping away sends an unfortunate symbolic message to the rest of the world.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha