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

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

On Nov. 4, the day after the election, the United States will officially exit the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The date is a coincidence. Still, the timing underscores a crucial victory for the Trump administration in its efforts to derail federal action on global warming, which the president dismisses as a hoax.

When President Trump announced in June 2017 that the U.S. intended to back out of the promises it made under the Paris Agreement, many climate experts and diplomats worried that there would be a domino effect. If too many countries left the agreement, many feared that international climate action would slow so much that the goal of the Paris agreement — to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures — would be impossible to meet.

"I think President Trump stepped back on climate change hoping that the world would join him," says Jake Schmidt, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In the past three years , there has been no mass exodus from the landmark accord. But some countries, including American allies such as Japan, have eased up on cutting emissions. The U.S. itself has fallen short of the goals it pledged to reach in order to avert the worst-case scenarios of extreme weather.

The United States is the only country to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Other nations remain in the pact because they feel adapting to climate change is in their best interests, says Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations climate chief who helped draft the agreement.

"They're making a very clear cut, hard-nosed economic argument," says Figueres. "This is the best way to protect jobs and grow the economy."

Despite the pledges of signatory states, the goals of the Paris Agreement still remain out of reach. Global greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and the average global temperature is already about 1 degree Celsius higher than it was a century ago. The promises that nearly 200 countries made under the agreement are insufficient to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, scientists say. And, in 2018, a landmark scientific report warned that humans must limit warming even more — to 1.5 degrees — in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Falling further 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.

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
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.

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.

Twelve 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 — as well as Washington, D.C. 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?"

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.