U.S. begins retreat from global climate agreements

Gas emissions at a manufacturing complex in Toronto, Canada. (Credit: U.N. Photo/Kibae Park)

A new executive order signed by President Donald Trump seeks to roll back the environmental regulations initiated by the Obama administration in an effort to slow down climate change. It virtually stops the progress of reducing greenhouse gases by the world’s largest emitter – a potential blow to the Paris climate deal.

“Sending the clean power plan back to the drawing board might earn President Trump a few political points from a narrow interest group,” said Laurence Tubiana, head of the European Climate Foundation, in a statement, “but should this see the light of day, it will hurt the vast majority of Americans as it will propel the economy backwards so that it resembles something from the 19th century.”

The order covers a lot of ground. It asks the Environmental Protection Agency to rewrite the Clean Power Plan, ends the moratorium on leasing federal land to coal mining companies, eases rules on methane emissions and more. According to the Rhodium Group, the order prevents the U.S. from reaching the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. In fact, projected emission cuts were already on track to fall short of the 26 percent reduction by 2025 goal set by the Paris Agreement.

Environmental activists criticized the executive order, arguing it takes the U.S. in the wrong direction.

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“At a moment when we desperately need to expand climate solutions, President Trump is trying to block the rise of clean energy to benefit fossil fuel billionaires who are already lining their pockets with massive taxpayer subsidies,” Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said in a statement. “This order ignores the law and scientific reality. Dirty coal power is never coming back because it can’t compete with clean energy, and denial won’t make climate change go away.”

In 2015, the Paris climate deal set the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. At the current course, the world will see its temperate rise by more than 4 degrees. Plans set by governments are projected to limit warming to 3.4 degrees – well short of the Paris goal. As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, what the U.S. does affects the rest of the world.

The top line concern for activists is the Clean Power Plan. The Obama administration established the plan in 2015 requiring states to begin cutting power plant emissions by 2022. The White House projected that the U.S. could cut power plant emissions 32 percent 2005 levels by 2030. The plan survived a series of legal challenges to stay in place.

It alone will bring the U.S. halfway toward reaching greenhouse gas emission reductions set by the Paris Agreement, according to projections by Climate Interactive. The United States and China led the way to achieve a significant breakthrough on slowing global warming in Paris. Trump pledged to leave the deal during his campaign for president.

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He also voiced skepticism about climate change, a view reflected in his pick of Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA. Pruitt expressed his disagreement with the Paris climate deal in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos last weekend. Administration officials said they are still reviewing the Paris deal to determine whether the U.S. should leave.

“You know, what was wrong with Paris was not just that it was, you know, failed to be treated as a treaty, but China and India, the largest producers of CO2 internationally, got away scot-free,” Pruitt said in the interview. “We’ve penalized ourselves through lost jobs while China and India didn’t take steps to address the issue internationally. So Paris was just a bad deal, in my estimation.”

He is now tasked with rewriting or slightly altering the Clean Power Plan. Any change is likely to face a legal challenge, making it difficult for the Trump administration to alter it in the short term. Questions about the legal challenges and policy steps taken by the administration create uncertainty about future carbon emissions.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.