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  • 01.31.17

What Will Happen If The U.S. Withdraws From The Paris Climate Agreement

Trump’s EPA transition leader says the administration will soon move to leave the groundbreaking climate agreement. How will that work, and what will it mean for clean energy in America, and the fate of the world?

What Will Happen If The U.S. Withdraws From The Paris Climate Agreement

After reviving the Keystone XL Pipeline, pushing for the Dakota Access Pipeline, and temporarily banning refugees from entering the U.S., Trump may soon move on to one of his next campaign promises: pulling out of the Paris climate agreement.

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Myron Ebell, who led the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, predicts that Trump will withdraw from the deal, and might do it within days.

To be clear, Ebell is not currently part of the administration, so his prediction is that of an outsider. When Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, was asked about the Paris deal in his confirmation hearings, he said that the U.S. would be “better served by being at that table than leaving that table.”

During the campaign, Trump promised to “cancel” the Paris agreement. After the election, he claimed that he would keep an “open mind” about climate change. Given that he’s surrounded himself with climate deniers who want nothing more than to gut the deal, his campaign promises seem more likely than his post-election nod at thoughtful restraint.

The landmark agreement saw 190 countries make pledges to stabilize emissions to limit climate change. The U.S. pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

It’s not simple to withdraw–the U.S. already ratified the agreement, so it would have to wait three years before announcing a withdrawal, and then it would take another year before the process was finished. But the agreement falls under an earlier 1992 treaty–the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change–and if the U.S. withdrew from that instead, it would only take a year. And all that assumes that the administration cares about laws.

“They could potentially do something even faster just by ignoring rules and stopping to participate,” says Andrew Light, a distinguished senior fellow in the climate program at the World Resources Institute, who was also part of the climate team in the State Department leading up to the agreement.

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If the U.S. withdraws from the Paris agreement, or simply doesn’t make an effort to meet its pledged (but voluntary) targets, that will have several consequences beyond those on the climate itself–including impacts on the economy and security.

By 2030, renewable energy is estimated to be a $6 trillion market. Without the federal government behind it, U.S. companies may fall behind the rest of the world.

“I think if the U.S. withdrew, then it would probably make it much harder for [U.S. renewable energy companies] to sell their products around the world, because they’ve got competition,” says Light.

China is investing $360 billion in renewable energy over the next few years, which will create 13 million new jobs. Other countries may decide to penalize the U.S. if it fails on the Paris agreement. “They could do that by lowering tariffs, for example, from other countries that would be trying to sell clean energy technologies,” he says.

Beyond the Paris agreement, the government also plays a big role in helping the renewable energy sector succeed in selling to the rest of the world and creating more U.S. jobs, though instruments like the Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Without that investment, “we’re effectively taking ourselves out of the clean energy economy,” Light says.

Before the inauguration, 530 companies and 100 investors wrote an open letter to the new administration asking for support of low-carbon policies, investment in the low-carbon economy, and continued participation in the Paris agreement.

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“Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” they wrote. “But the right action now will create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness.”

Withdrawing from the Paris agreement would also affect the U.S. relationship with other countries. “To create the first climate agreement we were really pushing lots of leaders to really get on board and get this thing done,” says Light. “I think if the U.S. completely pulls away from this, we’re going to see a diplomatic blowback. It’s going to be significant, and it will impact a lot of areas that this administration will care about a lot more than climate change, especially on trade and national security issues.”

In the longer term, failing to reduce emissions now will lead to spending trillions of dollars dealing with the damage caused by climate change. It will also lead to greater security threats as climate impacts create new political instability.

All hope is not lost: Even if the federal government rejects the Paris agreement, cities, states, and businesses can potentially make enough progress to come close to the Paris target of 26% to 28% reductions. By 2050, the longer-term goal of the U.S. was to reduce emissions 80%, in line with some recommendations to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“I think there’s a good chance that between what states and cities are doing, and what businesses are doing, that we can hit somewhere maybe on the lower end of that range by 2025,” says Light. “But unless we have an administration that continues ambitious action starting in 2020, I think it’s going to be really difficult for us to get back on track so that we hit any lower by 2030.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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