The U.S. Must Not Abdicate Leadership On Climate Change

It was clear from his statements while campaigning that if Donald Trump won the presidential election, it wasn’t going to be good news for renewable energy. President Trump has spent his time in office so far undoing environmental regulations and trying to fulfill his campaign promise to revive the coal industry. The latest move in that direction was President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will pull out of the Paris Accord on climate change.

The intricacies around the Paris Accord could cover several posts. But the optics of this are terrible for the U.S. on the world stage. Opponents of the agreement cite the costs to the U.S. economy. Trump himself stated that the agreement is unfair to the U.S. and that he hoped to negotiate a better agreement.

If you disagree that the world needs to take action to prevent the unabated rise of carbon dioxide emissions, then you need read no further. I am not going to argue that case in this article. But if you at least agree that there is a risk associated with failing to curtail emissions, let’s first consider historical and current emissions.

According to the 2016 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, since 1965 the U.S. has emitted 264 billion metric tons (BMT) of carbon dioxide. This was nearly 24% of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions during that time and represents the most of any country in the world. In comparison, over that same time span, the European Union emitted 209 BMT, China emitted 169 BMT, and India was way down the list with only 39 BMT.

So the U.S. ranks first among countries responsible for the current inventory of atmospheric carbon dioxide. But the direction of trends in recent years suggests that this won’t remain the case. China’s annual emissions exceeded those of the U.S. in 2006, and by 2015 had increased to 67% higher than annual emissions in the U.S. India’s emissions have doubled in the past dozen years, and on the current trajectory will reach U.S. emission levels toward the end of the next decade.

In fact, carbon dioxide emissions in the Asia-Pacific region are nearly double the combined emissions of the U.S. and the European Union, and they are rising rapidly:

Carbon dioxide emissions for the U.S., EU, and Asia Pacific.

Carbon dioxide emissions for the U.S., EU, and Asia Pacific.

It seems pretty clear that the Asia-Pacific region will be the most important driver of carbon dioxide emissions in the near future, and that it is imperative to rein them in. But the Paris Accord was not going to accomplish this. The treaty was non-binding, and analysis by the International Energy Agency concluded that the agreed upon measures fell far short of what was needed to achieve the treaty’s goals.

But it is also clear that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide reached its current level above 400 parts per million (PPM) with significant contributions from the U.S. and the EU. So this is a problem in which there are multiple responsible parties, and it will require cooperation among all of them if there is any hope of coming up with a solution.

Thus, the U.S. must not abdicate leadership on this issue. We must take responsibility for our historical emissions while helping developing countries avoid taking the same high-emissions path to development. Not only do we need to maintain a seat at the negotiating table, but we need to let the rest of the world know we are serious about addressing the problem. We can’t give other countries the excuse of not meeting their commitments that the U.S. decided not to participate.

Further, there may be other real costs to the U.S. for abandoning the agreement. Some countries may opt not to trade with a country that isn’t a participant. We could also lose our advantage in the cleantech industry to other nations. It wouldn’t be the first such industry the U.S. has lost.

Our long-term future is in clean energy. It will be a shame if we have to depend on other countries for that energy. By abandoning commitments to clean energy, that’s exactly what we risk.

June 20th, 2017 by