President Trump cast the day as a sea change a year ago when he announced the United States would exit the Paris climate accord. Capitalizing on a campaign promise, Trump said casting aside the U.N. pact would unshackle U.S. energy and thwart economic rivals.
So, one year later, what has that decision really accomplished?
Perhaps most symbolically, the United States hasn’t even formally done the thing Trump said he was doing—U.N. rules bar the country from leaving the accord until November 2020. So there’s a chance Trump could change his mind, especially if he thought doing so would benefit his re-election chances.
To be sure, Trump’s intent to withdraw has shifted conversations and actions. In some ways, that’s been subtle. In other ways, trends have continued uninterrupted.
Countries, states and cities are reasserting their climate credentials, filling the void left by Trump. Some have tried to persuade the White House to act on climate, though to no avail. Trump is largely driven by domestic politics. He’s sticking to his campaign trail pledges to buoy the fossil fuels backed by red-state voters who ushered him into office and jettisoning the Paris accord. Trump has, after all, demonstrated little affinity for conventional foreign policy and even less for action to combat climate change.
“You dance with the person who you have, and that person they have now is Donald Trump,” said Frank Maisano, a partner in Bracewell LLP’s Policy Resolution Group.
In some ways, though, that dance may resemble a box step—movement, surely, but largely ending up in the same place. Below are some of the things that have changed—and others that haven’t—in the past year:
Commitments tough to enforce
The only other Paris accord holdouts—Nicaragua and Syria—have since joined the agreement, leaving the United States as a lone outsider. Other nations have reiterated their resolve to achieving steep carbon cuts. U.S. state and local governments, universities and the private sector formed the “We Are Still In” coalition to stick with the deal’s goals.
It all pointed to isolation of the Trump administration on the global stage and an unwavering endorsement of the Paris pact.
“If anything, the world closed ranks around the Paris deal since the White House decision,” World Wildlife Fund President Carter Roberts said in an email. “This was not a foregone conclusion after the President’s speech” last year.
But evidence of progress on the international stage isn’t so clear.
The European Union saw its carbon emissions increase this past year. China’s emissions are growing the fastest since 2011, according to an analysis by Greenpeace’s Unearthed. Saudi Arabia has balked at the deal’s desire for increasing national ambitions to slash emissions. Germany is on track to miss its 2020 emissions target.
The developments reflect a basic truth about the Paris accord and similar international agreements—they’re difficult to enforce. Countries also aren’t obligated to meet their emissions targets under Paris.
Those trends aren’t necessarily a reaction to Trump, said Neelesh Nerurkar, a vice president and senior analyst with ClearView Energy Partners LLC. The worry, though, is for the agreement’s outyears, he said. Nations have acknowledged their “nationally determined contributions” to curb planet-warming gases are not nearly enough to avoid a 2-degree-Celsius global temperature rise by 2100.
“Many countries responded to the U.S. announcement by reaffirming their own climate commitments,” Nerurkar said in an email. “We could see, however, a drag on efforts to encourage greater global ambition to the degree developing countries view the U.S. position as exacerbating what they may feel is inadequate action by advanced economies.”
The fossil fuel conversation
Fossil fuels aren’t going away tomorrow. It’s a fact Trump has embraced, whereas his predecessor tried to steer the fuel mix away from the highest-emitting sources. That change in approach has created more space for discussing the role of fossil fuels in international climate agreements.
“In the international community there are a number of countries that are looking for a space for fossil fuels to remain relevant,” Maisano said. “There has been more acknowledgement and discussion of fossil fuels, but those discussions have always been there—they just have been less prominent.”
Both the International Energy Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Administration acknowledge fossil fuel consumption will remain robust, largely thanks to growing wealth in emerging economies. The Trump administration has used those projections to tout its “energy dominance” agenda and a “clean fossil alliance.” The White House contends it can harness those resources for climate gains by providing more efficient coal-burning technology and natural gas while also boosting the U.S. economy and strengthening geopolitical alliances.
“There’s a real challenge for the United States because the Europeans refuse to have a rational discussion on the role of fossil and how it’s in the international community’s interest to have a rational discussion about how to make fossil cleaner and more efficient,” said George David Banks, Trump’s former international energy and climate adviser.
Some of these trends occurred independently from Trump. International markets play a huge role. Obama even helped advance a path for fossil fuel exports by signing legislation ending a four-decade ban on crude oil exports and smoothing a process for greenlighting natural gas exports.
Despite those realities and a fossil fuel boom during his presidency, Obama spent his time promoting renewable energy in hopes of creating demand both domestically and abroad, said R.L. Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote Political Action. It wasn’t enough to address climate change in the way nations must to avert catastrophic climate change, she said.
“There has been a bit of a fantasy that Obama pushed among others that we could get our dessert without eating our vegetables,” Miller said. “Or, to put it more precisely, we could say yes to the renewable energy promise—the jobs, the cleaner cars, etc.—without saying no to fossil fuels.”
Still, fossil fuels are front and center on the menu for Trump. So has he made it easier for other nations to speak openly about their dependence on fossil fuels?
“I think he has,” Miller said.
Leaving Paris probably won’t save coal
Trump has positioned his Paris decision as a way to save the ailing U.S. coal industry.
Coal exports were a bright spot, rising 61 percent in 2017. EIA attributed that to surging Asian demand for U.S. coal amid supply disruptions in Australia and Indonesia.
“What this is already doing—which I think will happen in a much broader and deeper way—is reviving the economy,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the head of Trump’s EPA transition team. “Getting Paris off our backs is a key part of that.”
But those gains are likely fleeting. EIA projects a 9 percent drop in coal exports this year and for 2019 to remain unchanged. Domestic consumption, which already fell in 2017, will continue to decline. Production will drop, too.
Simply put: Leaving Paris isn’t likely to will a stronger coal market into being.
“For coal, the push to reduce regulatory costs is unlikely to overcome natural gas’s strong price based positioning for power sector market share,” Nerurkar said.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance, traditionally bullish on carbon-free energy, said coal-fired power plant closures this year are expected to rival the 15 gigawatts that went offline in 2015. The Sierra Club noted more coal-fired electricity shuttered in the first two months of this year than the first three years under Obama.
Nerurkar predicted a “rollback rebound” from Trump’s efforts to aid coal—states and other nations are strengthening plans to add renewable energy and reduce carbon footprints.
Again, whether those entities achieve their best-laid plans remains to be seen. Market trends, however, point to increasing natural gas and renewable energy.
“I see the markets getting stronger and stronger for both gas and renewables,” Maisano said.
Republicans in the House Climate Solutions Caucus have sought ways to split with Trump on climate change. By and large, the group’s GOP members were silent a year ago when Trump announced he intended to exit Paris.
Aside from the caucus almost doubling its membership since then—it now claims 39 Republicans—not much has changed with respect to Paris.
“I don’t have a good answer for you, unfortunately,” said Emily Wirzba, a legislative representative with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby organization working with the caucus. “The Paris Agreement isn’t the focus of the conversations I’m having.”
Republicans have long been skeptical of binding international agreements, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that even GOP lawmakers friendlier to climate policies wouldn’t support the Paris Agreement.
But many elder GOP statesmen have said the Paris Agreement addressed Republicans’ long-held concerns about climate pacts. That’s because the agreement was partially designed to placate Republicans—none of the emissions cuts countries pledged is binding.
“The Climate Solutions Caucus is a joke—or, I should say, it would be a joke if this were not a serious matter. It’s nothing but political cover,” Miller said “They can’t even get their Republicans to sign onto their letters.”
A handful of Republicans did sign a letter urging Trump to remain in the accord. But as midterms draw nearer and those caucus members’ Democratic opponents call for re-engagement, there’s been little chatter or push from the GOP to reconsider Paris.
Wirzba said part of that rests with GOP leadership—it hasn’t allowed climate votes. She’s concentrated on getting Republicans to attach amendments to must-pass legislation, include climate resilience language in reports and enlist signatories for various letters.
“We’ve made a ton of progress in terms of Republicans being comfortable in talking about climate change at all,” Wirzba said. “But there is clearly a lot of work that has to be done still.”
Clean Power Plan
It was clear, if not yet official, that Obama’s plan to slash power plant carbon emissions wasn’t going to happen even before Trump said the United States would leave Paris. That fact had alarmed nations for months, as the policy was seen as a key piece for achieving the U.S.-pledged emissions cuts.
“Make no mistake, we need national leadership on climate, and the Clean Power Plan should be left in place,” said Roberts of the World Wildlife Fund. “But it’s also clear that America’s signal to the world on climate change is increasingly coming from cities, states and businesses rather than the White House.”
How or whether the United States will regulate emissions from power plants is still unclear one year later.
Industry representatives have advocated for leaving a significantly scaled-back regulation in place. Some of those representatives said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has demonstrated an understanding that he’s legally obligated to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.
Far-right critics of mainstream climate science want Trump and Pruitt to ditch the regulations entirely, but they’re not confident it can be done.
“We favor no replacement,” Ebell said. “It seems to me they’re being very slow and clumsy on a whole lot of these withdrawals of regulations.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.