Only two other countries aren’t part of the Paris agreement, the landmark deal to cut climate pollution and keep global temperatures within safe limits. One of them–Syria–is in the middle of a devastating civil war. The other, Nicaragua, thought that the agreement wasn’t ambitious enough. Now the U.S. will join them, despite the fact that the majority of Americans and even polluting companies like Chevron and Exxon think that staying in the agreement was the best decision. The Trump Administration was never planning to be strong on the climate, but even if this decision is largely symbolic, it will have deadly consequences for the planet. And it will sacrifice the ability of the U.S. to be both a moral and technological leader in the most imperative fight–and one of the most viable opportunities for economic growth.
In a speech announcing his decision, President Trump announced that the U.S. would not follow through on any of the non-binding targets in the agreement, and not make payments to the Green Climate Fund, which gives U.S. funding to help other countries implement renewable energy. He did say he would be interested in renegotiating the deal, but it seems unlikely: “There is absolutely zero chance that other countries would agree to renegotiate the Paris Agreement,” says Henrik Selin, associate professor of international relations at Boston University. “It was the result of years of tough negotiations and delicate compromises and it has also already entered into force.”
The Economy Will Be Hurt As Badly As The Climate
“The country that’s going to suffer the worst from the U.S. pulling out of the Paris agreement is the United States,” Andrew Light, a distinguished senior fellow in the global climate program for the research organization World Resources Institute, tells Fast Company. “We have the most to lose.”
As part of the agreement, which stated a goal to keep global temperatures from rising above two degrees Celsius and make efforts to keep it below a 1.5-degree rise, the U.S. pledged to cut emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. But that commitment wasn’t binding, and Trump has already moved to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s attempt to meet the goal. He also reopened a review of stricter fuel efficiency standards. In other words, even if Trump had decided to stay in the agreement, the current administration likely wouldn’t have done much more to cut emissions.
Related Video: Pulling Out Of The Paris Climate Agreement Could Be A Huge Blow To The U.S. Economy
“I think that Donald Trump is going to do whatever damage he’s going to do to the trajectory of American emissions regardless of whether or not he stays in Paris,” Light says.
If the climate will suffer because of the administration’s policies as a whole, the withdrawal from Paris could have a more direct impact on the American economy. “I think that what we risk happening is that the credibility of American businesses who are trying to compete on the international clean energy market is tarnished by the fact that the United States has pulled out of Paris,” says Light. “Obviously, some of these are big international companies and they’ve got their longstanding relationships in other parts of the world. But I do think there’s a big chunk of the American renewable energy industry which is going to suffer from the United States essentially being one of three countries in the world that’s not part of this agreement.”
One report found that meeting the goals of the Paris agreement would create $19 trillion in additional economic growth over the next 30 years, and $26 billion in GDP growth in the U.S. alone by 2020. Withdrawing could make it harder for U.S. companies to benefit from global growth. Innovators may choose to launch startups overseas rather than in the U.S. In a recent letter to Trump published as a full-page ad in some newspapers, several corporations argued that staying in the agreement would strengthen the market for clean tech businesses, and pulling out would limit access to that market and risk retaliation from other countries. (The candidate challenging Angela Merkel in Germany has already threatened trade retaliation). CEOs have also reportedly been calling Trump, begging him to stay in the agreement.
It could also hurt job growth. The fastest-growing occupation in the U.S. is now wind turbine technicians, and there are more solar jobs than jobs in the coal industry. “It sends a signal both to companies and the 3 million people here who work in clean energy that America doesn’t care about those jobs, and America doesn’t care about the fastest-growing industry in the country,” says Bob Keefe, executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs, a nonpartisan group of business owners and investors.
The U.S. Will Lose Global Influence–To China
Trump’s proposed budget also eliminates the Global Climate Change Initiative, a program designed to support climate action overseas. The Green Climate Fund, which was designed to help developing countries prepare for climate change, was also cut in the budget proposal (the Obama administration had pledged $3 billion, but had only paid $1 billion so far). The budget also calls for major cuts in funding to organizations like the World Bank, which also support programs around the world that try to limit climate change and help poorer countries adapt to problems like rising seas and drought.
Those cuts were proposed regardless of the withdrawal from the Paris agreement. And though the loss of funding is significant, other countries may step in. China, for example, has a separate fund to support climate projects and may see the advantage in pouring even more money into Latin America, Africa, and other parts of Asia.
“I think China will have a real opportunity to step up and basically say to the rest of the world or the rest of the developing world, ‘Hey, the United States promised you money. The United States is not delivering on that. We are. Who’s your friend now?'” says Selin. “So it sort of changes the balance. Whenever the Chinese provide money for overseas investment, their strings attached are going to be different from the strings attached, generally, by the United States and Europe. For instance, the Chinese are not too concerned about human rights.”
Without the U.S. in the Paris agreement, China and others are likely to step in to take a larger leadership role. That could give Chinese renewable energy companies a boost in the global marketplace, and leave American companies farther behind because the U.S. doesn’t have a seat at the table in major negotiations.
As the U.S. is no longer seen as a leader on climate, the loss of global influence could also pose a security threat. “We will lose influence with parts of the world where we have very transparent security concerns–in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia,” says Light. “I think that what’s going to happen, again, is that China, the Europeans, and others are going to step in and fill that gap. They’re going to get that influence, and the U.S. interest will suffer.”
A New, Non-U.S. Climate Coalition
The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement–and its lack of support for climate action in general–doesn’t mean that the climate is automatically doomed.
While it’s possible that other countries could follow the U.S. example and withdraw, there aren’t signs that will happen. After the G7 Summit, each of the G7 countries other than the United States reaffirmed its commitment to Paris. China and the EU plan to reaffirm their commitment this week. Smaller countries are likely to do the same.”It’s always possible that one or two countries do follow [the U.S.], but I think it’s clear that the vast majority of small and medium-sized countries will stay within the agreement,” Selin says.
Renewable energy is also growing because of economics. Solar and wind power are cheaper than coal, or close to that point, in many markets. “Virtually any energy analyst will tell you that coal is not going to make a grand comeback,” he says. “The decline in coal is not because of federal policy. The federal mandates haven’t even kicked in yet.” Some experts argue that the U.S. may meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan based on market forces (although policy has also been a part of the positive change so far, and other experts, such as Dr. Ines Azevedo, co-director of the Climate and Energy Decision Making Center at Carnegie Mellon University, believe that the growth of renewables may slow without continued policy support). Other analysts believe that electric cars will be dominant on U.S. roads in less than a decade–because of the market, rather than policy.
“Right now, the market forces are more aligned with climate-friendly policy than they might have ever been in the United States,” says Selin. “Now it seems like some of the political incentives and the economic incentives will actually diverge. So that’s unfortunate. But there’s still reason to think that the U.S. emissions that are currently on a downward trajectory will continue to go down. Just not as fast as they could have had the federal government been more active.”
Cities and states are also leading with stronger climate policies. Cities like Atlanta, San Diego, and Salt Lake City are committed to 100% renewable electricity. Major corporations such as Walmart have committed to reduce emissions in line with the goals of the Paris agreement. Google already buys enough renewable power to account for its entire electricity use. Apple is close to reaching the same goal and 95 other corporations have variations of “100% renewable” goals.
And in four years–particularly if Trump’s action triggers a backlash of even stronger support for climate action–federal policy may reverse again. The formal withdrawal process can’t begin until three years after the agreement took effect, or November 2019; withdrawal itself would then take a year or longer. (In another option, the U.S. could withdraw from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the overarching treaty that the Paris agreement is within. That process would be faster). If Trump leaves the Paris agreement alone, the next president could re-enter relatively quickly.