What difference will the United States pulling out of the Paris Agreement actually make?

If there is one golden rule of adolescence it is this – the ‘pull out method’ is never very reliable. Somebody obviously forgot to tell President Trump this, as he is still considering pulling out at the grand old age of 71. Mind you, whether or not he actually got past adolescence in the first place is certainly very debatable, given his behaviour since… well, forever.

But folks, before you get too excited, it is not sex under discussion here, but the Paris Agreement on preventing climate change.

When Trump first announced he was going to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, there was widespread condemnation, unsurprisingly. Elon Musk said that “Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.” Al Gore described the decision as “reckless and indefensible” and that it “undermines America’s standing in the world, threatening to damage humanity’s ability to solve the climate crisis in time.”

However, the situation is not quite as stark as people might be tempted to think. For a start, there is a catch.

The U.S. State Department has now formally signed the paperwork and submitted it. The trouble is, under the terms of the agreement, no country can give notice of its departure until Nov. 4 2019, and no country can actually leave until Nov. 4 2020. So although Trump supporters think that America is going to leave, it is not actually going to happen just yet.

Also, American diplomats will still attend Paris Agreement meetings for the next two years, until America can officially leave. Thanks to Obama, this means that the U.S. delegation will co-chair a panel on transparency, which happens this autumn. Clearly Trump himself doesn’t understand the Agreement, having stated that he would be open to America rejoining if terms are negotiated that are favourable to the U.S.. This is written into the Agreement anyway – if the U.S. feels restricted by the commitment made by Obama, it can announce a new commitment, without having to leave the Agreement.

It is clear though that what Trump really wants is for the Paris Agreement to be renegotiated so it allows a ‘business-as-usual’ dependence on fossil fuels. That, clearly, isn’t going to happen. Just recently Nicaragua signed up to the Agreement, leaving only the U.S. and Syria (which is mostly concentrating on its civil war at the moment) resisting it. Furthermore, the newly elected French President Macron firmly stated on Sept. 19 that the Agreement would not be renegotiated.

Prime Minister of Luxembourg Bettel & French President Macron, 29 September 2017
(Flickr / Raul Mee (EU2017EE))

Then there is the fact that the Americans will soon begin to realise that Trump’s dream of bringing back the U.S. coal industry is unrealistic. It is not going to help improve the environment at all, despite what Trump says. Secondly, for those countries wanting to continue using coal (and there are not that many now), there are coal resources that are much easier to exploit than those in the U.S., especially those in the Appalachian region. Third, the economics of coal just doesn’t work anymore, ironically, partly because of fracking, but even more, so that the cost of renewable energy has plunged and is continuing to do so. This is particularly true about solar and wind.

In essence, to put it bluntly, coal is dead.

There are other reasons why an American pullout of the Paris Agreement isn’t really going to achieve very much, and that is because whatever effect Trump thinks it will have is being negated by the attitude of a great many U.S. states and cities. Trump is being undermined, and what is even more laughable is that he doesn’t even seem to have realised it yet.

Analysis conducted at Climate Week NYC recently showed that 22 U.S. states, 54 cities and 250 businesses based in the U.S. are committed to carrying on with the Paris Agreement commitments anyway, whatever the White House says. Among them are large states such as New York, California and Colorado, which can make a huge contributed to greenhouse gas reductions simply because of their size. Cities across America are also becoming more ambitious while businesses, including giants such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and IKEA, are starting to set some really ambitious climate goals, hovering around a figure of, say, 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) over the next 10 years.

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So if the U.S. does decide to withdraw from Paris, the impact on global GHG reduction may very well be minimal.

The report launched at Climate Week NYC by NewClimate Institute and The Climate Group found that the U.S. can already meet half of its climate commitments under the Paris Agreement by 2025, if the 342 commitments by states, cities and businesses identified in the report are implemented.

“U.S. states, cities and business are not waiting for the U.S. Federal Government to make its position clear on Paris,” said Helen Clarkson, Chief Executive of The Climate Group at the launch of the report. “This new report clearly highlights their unwavering commitment to climate leadership. Importantly, it shows us that climate action is not solely dependent on the actions of national government. U.S. states, cities and businesses have the power to mitigate the consequences of a full Paris pullout.”

Meanwhile, professor Niklas Höhne from NewClimate Institute, who co-authored the report, believes that the impact of states, cities and businesses is currently underestimated, as there is a whole lot more going on across the country that has not yet been recorded. Indeed, as Quartz reported back in June, a number of states (New York, Washington State, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Puerto Rico) have joined something called the “US Climate Coalition.” These states collectively represent 36 percent of American gross domestic product and are committed to cutting GHGs by as much as 28 percent below 2005 levels over the next three years while also meeting the targets of former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which Trump has promised to scrap. On top of that, 211 US city mayors have pledged to honour the Paris Agreement and over 1,000 mayors, businesses and university presidents have signed a similar declaration organised by environmental groups.

Trump has promised that coal will be coming back to states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, but the truth is that it isn’t. It simply isn’t. A few have opened up to supply the steel industry. But for energy generation? Forget it.

The best thing that folks in West Virginia can do right now is realise that Trump is lying to them. And move on. Renewable energy is beckoning; it is there that future West Virginian prosperity lies.🔷

(Cover: Photograph by Flickr / Michael Vadon - President Donald J. Trump at CPAC 2017, 24 February 2017.)