by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Facilitator
President Trump’s June 1 announcement that the U.S. will pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change action was greeted by predictable comments from the agreement’s supporters and opponents. But more meaningful was the reaction of various entities who will have much to say about what happens with America’s actual future emissions. Within days, states, cities, counties, universities, non-governmental organizations, and businesses stepped forward to pledge to work together to see the U.S. meet its goals with or without support from Washington.
Under the terms of the agreement, the U.S.’ exit would not be effective until November 2020, although the government could in the meantime simply not participate in any efforts to achieve its commitments.
What is the Paris Agreement?
It is an agreement negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), signed by 195 countries. (Of the countries who are part of the UNFCC only Nicaragua and Syria failed to sign.) The aim is to: a) hold down the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit it to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; b) increase the world’s ability to adapt to climate changes; and c) enable finance flows to facilitate a pathway toward low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.
Under the accord, each country sets out voluntary goals for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (called the Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC) and, in some cases, for financial aid to help poorer countries cope with climate change. The U.S. under President Obama pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 as well as provide $3 billion in aid.
The agreement included no enforcement mechanism, meaning it is up to each signatory to voluntarily meet its pledges.
As of June 19, nine states, 194 cities and counties, 306 universities, and more than 1,000 businesses had signed “We are Still In,” a statement confirming their commitment to support action to meet the U.S.’ contribution. Included in the statement:
“In the absence of leadership from Washington, states, cities, colleges and universities, businesses and investors, representing a sizeable percentage of the U.S. economy will pursue ambitious climate goals, working together to take forceful action and to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing emissions.
It is imperative that the world know that in the U.S., the actors that will provide the leadership necessary to meet our Paris commitment are found in city halls, state capitals, colleges and universities, investors and businesses. Together, we will remain actively engaged with the international community as part of the global effort to hold warming to well below 2℃ and to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy that will benefit our security, prosperity, and health.”
Significant actions have already begun. The states have come together in the U.S. Climate Alliance. Cities formed the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda. And corporations have already become the largest buyers of renewable power in the U.S. Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown recently met with Chinese President Xi Jingping to discuss direct cooperation between China and California on climate change initiatives.
Source: National Geographic, compiled by Riley D. Champine
The entities signing “We Are Still In” are not small players – they make up key energy users including states such as California and New York; cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and San Francisco; and corporations such as Adidas, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Target, and Walmart. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, the cities and states who signed as of June 5 had a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $6.2 trillion and a population of 120 million, while the companies had a combined revenue of $1.4 trillion. This suggests that these entities make up about 10% of the world’s economy.
As of the last year that data is available (2015) the EPA states that the U.S. has reduced greenhouse gas emissions 11.5% below 2005 levels driven largely by energy efficiency and the shift from coal-fired electric generation to natural gas and renewable electricity. This has occurred without mandates at the federal level. So can state and local governments combined with the actions of market-based corporations continue the downward trend?
Amy Meyers Jaffe, executive director for energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis thinks so. States Meyers Jaffe: “I personally think the market itself will deliver what we committed to without much intervention. There are very few states that aren’t going in the direction of energy efficiency and renewables.”
I am inclined to concur. With renewable power now the cheapest electric source available in much of the U.S. (with natural gas being cheapest in most of the areas where renewables don’t rule) state utility commissions will likely drive utilities toward these sources in regulated states, and power markets will drive the shift in competitive states. The last key factor will be emissions in the transportation sector. If current efforts to develop competitive electric vehicles are successful, it seems likely that even without support from Washington the U.S. will meet its Paris Agreement goals.
 Under the terms of the agreement, the U.S.’ exit would not be effective until November 2020, although the government could in the meantime simply not participate in any efforts to achieve its commitments.