In the year since Trump announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris agreement–the historic climate deal to cut emissions enough to keep the global temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius, and ideally, under 1.5 degrees–the U.S. is still making progress in spite of the federal government’s lack of support.
More than nine gigawatts of renewable electricity was added to the American electric grid over the last 12 months. In 2017, U.S. carbon emissions from energy fell to the lowest level in 25 years. Electric vehicles had their best year in sales. Twenty-seven coal plants announced plans to close in 2017; more coal capacity was retired in the first 45 days of 2018 than in the first three years of Obama’s first term.
McDonald’s, Hilton, and the candy giant Mars pledged to cut emissions in line with Paris agreement, joining a long list of other companies. Budweiser pledged to switch to renewable electricity for brewing beer; Apple reached a goal to power all of its operations with clean energy. Cities like Minneapolis and Norman, Oklahoma committed to getting 100% of their electricity from renewable energy, joining more than 80 other American cities and counties with the same goal. A coalition of states is working together to put a price on carbon.
Hundreds of cities, states, and businesses publicly pledged support for the Paris agreement in the wake of Trump’s announcement. “I think it was taken by a great many people as a symbol of an abdication of American leadership in the world, and they felt the need not only to act but to speak out,” says Carl Pope, vice chair of America’s Pledge, an initiative launched by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and California governor Jerry Brown that is tracking and quantifying non-federal climate action and working to mobilize more. A new microsite lists some of the progress from the last year.
Some of the climate action occurring now is a continuation of work that was already underway, but the fact that more people are talking about it is helping ramp up ambition, Pope says. “When people who are doing things on their own because they make sense start speaking out and they discover that a lot of other people are doing the same thing . . . then I think people get a lot more ambitious,” he says. “I think what you’re seeing now is the beginning of the ambition-building phase of the process.”
Economics are helping drive some of the changes. In many regions, it’s cheaper to build a new solar or wind power plants than a new fossil fuel plant. And in some places, like Colorado, the price difference is so great that it’s cheaper to pay to build a new renewable energy plant than it is to keep buying power from existing coal plants. Texas, which historically generated and used more coal than any other state, will start generating more electricity from wind than coal in 2018. “That is not because [Texas Governor Greg Abbott] has had a change of heart about climate,” says Pope. “It is happening because there are a lot of extremely practical businesses in Texas that want cheap electrons.”
The Trump administration’s efforts to loosen environmental regulations haven’t been particularly effective. The administration suspended the implementation of the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era policy designed to fight climate change. But the U.S. is still on track to meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan in 2019, 11 years ahead of schedule. “Everything Trump has said about the utility sector and bringing back coal is complete vaporware, and he’s had no impact at all,” Pope says.
Since the U.S. pulled out of the agreement, more than 20 countries committed to phase out coal. Countries including France, the U.K., and China announced that they planned to ban cars running on fossil fuels. Sweden committed to net zero emissions by 2045, and New Zealand committed to the same goal by 2050. But that’s not to say that there haven’t been real international consequences to Trump’s decision. Even as progress continues on the deal, U.S. leadership could have helped. As countries continue to negotiate the details, the U.S.–which played a key role in negotiating the original agreement–isn’t helping in that complicated process.
In a comprehensive report that will come out in September, America’s Pledge will add up all of the emission reductions that are coming from U.S. cities, states, and businesses, and show how that compares to the commitments the U.S. originally made for the Paris agreement. By 2025, the target was to reduce U.S. emissions 25%-28% compared to 2005. That target may still be within reach. “If we continue the pace of progress we’ve had since 2005, we’ll make it,” says Pope.
But, arguably, the pledges that countries have made for the Paris agreement don’t go far enough to meet its goals. With the current pledges, the world is on track for an estimated three-degree rise in global temperatures, something that could cause more deadly heat waves and droughts, disrupt global food production, make some areas uninhabitable, and trigger the melting of Arctic permafrost, releasing emissions that warm the planet even more. And businesses, cities, and countries could easily do more to reduce emissions now.
“It is very clear that the potential that’s available to states, cities, and businesses is far more than is needed to meet the Paris [target],” Pope says. “So we could still far outpace it.”