As Trump Withdraws From Paris, America and the World Double Down on Decarbonization

By Hal Harvey, CEO, Energy Innovation

Trump’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement is an unmatched abdication of responsibility, a clear sign he is uninformed about the treaty’s contents, and that he either fails to care or comprehend climate science.  Beyond climate, this decision will have serious geopolitical costs.

This decision—as inane and indefensible as it may be—needs to be kept in perspective, though. Important reactions and trends will continue to add momentum to decarbonizing the world.

First, Trump’s climate intransigence has likely only increased action by governments and companies across the world. In the span of a few days, major economies have either recommitted to the Paris Agreement or vowed to expand their climate goals. World powers as diverse as Australia, China, India, and the EU have indicated their commitment to staying in the Paris Agreement, and will work together in new ways to make it happen.

To wit, a bilateral statement from China and the EU outline their path forward, and Governor Jerry Brown traveled to China as America’s “climate ambassador” where he and President Xi reaffirmed their commitment to working together on climate issues. Some experts argue the Paris Agreement will be even more meaningful without the Trump Administration starting a domino effect of pledge backsliding or participating in negotiations as a laggard.

And where Trump has been reticent in America’s commitment to climate action, more than 1,400 U.S. companies, investors, mayors, and governors declared they are still in on taking necessary steps to meet the Paris Agreement. Combined, this mighty group represents more than $6 trillion of the U.S. economy and 120 million Americans, so a commitment like this has the power to make big waves.

Second, secular trends continue to drive carbon out of the economy.  Renewable energy has grown at an unprecedented pace as project economics become more and more favorable, and this will only accelerate. This is why many red, Trump-supporting states are becoming the largest proponents of renewable energy – particularly wind, which has proven abundant and economical in their jurisdictions – and climate change and politics can stay out of the conversation entirely.  In several parts of the U.S., and many more around the world, it is now cheaper to build new wind farms or solar arrays from scratch than to simply pay the operating costs of a coal-fired plant. Meanwhile, almost every day brings news of another utility retiring coal generation early due to economics and market forces.

This surge in renewables, coupled with fossil fuel retirements and efficiency improvements, is what’s keeping the majority of U.S. states on track to meet their Clean Power Plan compliance targets, whether they mean to or not (a term I like to call “accidental compliance”). There’s no reverse gear for these trends: surely some bumps in the road are inevitable, but the economics and technologies speak for themselves.

Third, the process to pull out of Paris is a long one, so there’s time to adjust. Technically, the U.S. cannot officially withdraw from the agreement until three years after the Paris Agreement came into force—November 4th, 2019—and the accord mandates a one-year notice period, so the official withdrawal wouldn’t occur until November 4th, 2020, one day after America’s next presidential election.

It was hard on June 1st to witness such an arrant display of senselessness and negligence.  Our proper reaction is to double down on decarbonization—in the individual states, through the private sector, and in key countries such as China.  We cannot let Trump’s actions slow momentum.