A new president will rejoin the Paris climate pact, but that’s not nearly enough

Before it was adopted, demonstrators demanded passage of the climate accord.

As promised, climate denier Donald Trump has made it official — on the first day he legally could, his administration declared that it wanted out of the landmark climate agreement adopted nearly four years ago.

After campaigning that climate change was a “hoax,” Trump announced in June 2017 that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, spewing nonsense about how the pact would hurt U.S. businesses and cost taxpayers too much money, charges that have been widely debunked. Luckily for us and for the rest of the world, the actual withdrawal can’t go into effect until the day after the 2020 election, and every single Democratic presidential hopeful has promised to rejoin the agreement as soon as he or she is inaugurated. Many of those Democratic candidates have climate action plans that would go much further in lowering greenhouse gas emissions than the original U.S. pledge, which was to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent of its 2005 levels by 2025.

At the Paris COP21 meeting in late 2015, 195 countries promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels while trying to further limit that increase to 1.5 degrees. The agreement, which formally went into effect in November 2016, is a roadmap of actions that each country promised to take to fight global warming. A few more countries were late signers—even Syria, meaning that virtually every country in the world signed on. Until now.

Only one — the United States — has now announced its intention to renege on the deal. So in addition to trying to undo all of the Obama-era climate protections, Trump has found another way to isolate the U.S. and damage the environment at the same time.

The Paris Climate Agreement was never going to stop or reverse global warming on its own. As soon as the agreement was announced, environmental leaders complained that it didn’t go nearly far enough. As 350.org founder Bill McKibben wrote in a 2015 opinion piece in The New York Times: “We need to build the movement even bigger in the coming years, so that the Paris agreement turns into a floor and not a ceiling for action.” But the fact that all countries signed on for the first time was more than symbolic — it was a new beginning and a point on which countries could build.

So what should be the next step, once the U.S. rejoins the climate agreement? Whatever it is, it won’t be enough without drastic action, and it will take more than one simple step.

A pact that was aspirational and nonbinding was bound to produce disappointments. Progress on climate action has been too slow, and countries aren’t meeting the goals set at the meeting.

A piece in The American Prospect points out that no G7 country is on track to meet its promised actions.

The U.S. will not be the only country letting down the planet. Among the world’s largest and most advanced economies, not a single country will achieve the mission of the Paris Agreement to prevent more than 1.5 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

In other words, if you want to know why young people around the world have taken to the streets by the millions, desperate for a commensurate response to the climate emergency, it’s because only one government in the world (Morocco) has properly stepped up to this point.

So industrialized countries are falling short. Here in the U.S., 24 governors, mostly Democrats, are telling the world that they still want to uphold the pact.

The governors, representing more than half the U.S. population (not hard, when two of the states they govern are California and New York), are part of the U.S. Climate Alliance. The alliance originally had 12 members and is now up to nearly half the states and Puerto Rico, now that there are more Democratic governors. Just one more example of why elections have consequences: With its unified Democratic executive and legislative branches, Virginia is now poised to start passing more aggressive climate legislation, such as boosting renewable energy.

A statement from the Climate Alliance criticizing Trump’s action outlined some of the steps those states already are taking:

Since launching the Climate Alliance, our states have adopted or strengthened 29 greenhouse gas reduction targets and ramped up zero-carbon power generation, with 19 states now enacting or pursuing goals for 100 percent carbon-free or clean power by 2030 or later. We are reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and saving residents money by transitioning to low- and zero-emissions vehicles, transportation systems, buildings, and appliances. We also are growing a clean energy economy and creating high quality jobs, enhancing our natural and working lands, and strengthening community resilience.

All of these actions, on a state and federal level, cost money. When Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the pact, thus not fulfilling the promises made by President Obama to help other countries financially to meet their goals, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg volunteered to foot the bill. He has pledged to cover $15 million of those costs.

Some countries are showing how to achieve measured successes. Their progress isn’t perfect, and many more drastic actions are needed to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate inaction. And for all these advances, these countries still have policies that produce serious environmental problems. Here are a few examples, according to a report from Phys.Org.

India. India, with its population of 1.4 billion people, has been one of the world’s main polluters and is third in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet mainly by embracing solar energy, it is on track to fulfill its pledge to the Paris climate accord.

In 2010, the country established the National Solar Mission, which set out to add 20 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2022. The country surpassed that goal back in 2018 and is now set to exceed its Paris pledge to supply 40% of the nation’s energy needs with non-fossil-fuel power by 2030. …

Plummeting prices for solar panels have greased the wheels, as has the low cost of labor in India. The government also helped by auctioning off contracts, creating competition among developers. These factors have combined to make India’s solar power the cheapest in the world.

India has more work to do, experts say. Most of its electricity still comes from coal-fired plants, and the country continues to commission new ones, albeit fewer than it planned a few years ago, before the solar explosion. But observers say it is a model for incentivizing the rapid spread of renewables.

Norway. Besides its commitment to lowering emissions by 40 percent, Norway has undertaken an aggressive effort to clean up its transportation sector.

As of 2017, electric cars and plug-in hybrids accounted for half of the new cars sold in the country. And in March of this year, electric cars alone made up almost 60% of new car sales. By 2025, the government wants that number to be 100%. …

The government provides generous incentives for electric vehicles, such as waiving some of its famously high taxes and providing owners with plenty of perks, like electric-only parking lots in cities. Norway has also invested in vehicle charging infrastructure and supplies most of its electricity with clean hydropower.

Yet Norway’s biggest export is the oil it produces from its offshore pumps in the North Sea, with an average production of 2 million barrels per day. It’s one reason that environmental groups such as Greenpeace are suing to try to stop the country from drilling for Arctic oil. So far, the environmentalists haven’t gotten too far.

Switzerland. Switzerland is one of the few countries to adopt a carbon tax or levy, as the Swiss call it, first imposed in 2008. As of 2018, it charged $96 per ton of carbon dioxide.

Most of the carbon tax revenue — which totals $300 million — is returned to citizens, including as subsidies to workers in industries that are negatively affected by climate policies. About a third goes to improving the efficiency of buildings and to R&D for clean technologies. …

Switzerland has other tools in its toolbox, including a trading scheme that allows polluters to pay others to cut their greenhouse gas emissions if they can do so less expensively. The country also boasts an enviable public transportation network.

Swiss officials admit that the carbon taxes alone haven’t driven emissions down to where they need to be: The Swiss are not on track to meet their Paris pledge to reduce emissions to achieve a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030.

Other countries have success stories, too. Next year, Italy will become the first country to require children to study climate change and sustainable development. “I want to make the Italian education system the first education system that puts the environment and society at the core of everything we learn in school,” Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti told Reuters.

The Paris Climate Agreement requires countries around the world to keep making future commitments and report on how they are meeting their pledges. Let’s hope pressure from climate activists such as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg will convince the world’s officials to take their roles a lot more seriously.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Nov. 10, 2019.

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