The cost of a Trump term, in billions of tons of carbon emissions

Under president Donald Trump, the US abandoned its global leadership on climate change even before leaving the Paris agreement.
Under president Donald Trump, the US abandoned its global leadership on climate change even before leaving the Paris agreement.
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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On Nov. 4, the US became the first and only country to officially exit the Paris agreement, the landmark 2015 commitment by almost every country to curb greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming in check.

The exit is no surprise—the only reason it took the Trump administration this long is because of timing restrictions in the document. And to a large degree, it doesn’t change anything: The administration has spent the last four years dismantling most of the climate and energy policy measures that made up the substance of the country’s Paris commitments. Long before the official Paris exit, the world has moved on without US climate leadership.

When Trump was elected in 2016, analysts speculated that the US’s absence from the Paris pact would cede international climate policy leadership to China, along with the potential to capitalize on a rapidly-expanding renewable energy economy. Four years later, that prediction has been validated.

In September, China announced an ambitious plan to cut its net carbon footprint to zero by 2060. The pledge gives China a boost in diplomatic credibility ahead of future climate summits, and also shows that the country is intent on building on its lead as the world’s clean energy powerhouse. Between 2010 and 2019, the country invested $758 billion in renewables, compared to $356 billion in the US, according to Bloomberg. Meanwhile, policy changes during Trump’s first term will result in nearly 2 billion additional tons of CO2 by 2035 compared to how things stood at the end of Obama’s term, according to a recent analysis.

China, of course, isn’t the only country that has accelerated toward decarbonization during Trump’s tenure. Other major emitters like India, the EU, Canada, and Indonesia are still engaged in the Paris process. And sub-national players in the US—mayors, governors, CEOs—have been cutting emissions without federal help (or in spite of active federal resistance, as in the case of California’s quest to adopt more aggressive tailpipe standards). Despite many attacks, renewables had a record year in the US.

But by rolling back environmental standards and failing to aggressively support clean energy, the US has not only lost momentum on reducing emissions and creating clean energy jobs but is also lagging behind on a chance to capitalize on the $23 trillion worth of clean energy investment opportunities the International Finance Corporation projects will emerge by 2030.

Outside America, there’s an opportunity cost to backing off of climate, too, said Andrew Light, who helped build the Paris agreement as a senior state department climate negotiator under Obama. Walking away from a global agreement it helped to create (the second recently, after the Iran nuclear deal) shreds American credibility on all foreign policy issues. And how much more ambitious might other countries be (or have been) in their climate aspirations if US diplomats were around to goad and fund them?

“The question is, and it’s very difficult to measure, but to what degree do some parties go soft,” Light said. “We can’t measure what hasn’t happened. The US wasn’t out there using its carrots and sticks to get countries to do more.”

What happens next is dependent on the outcome of the presidential election, which on the afternoon of Nov. 4 was still too close to call.

If Trump is re-elected, the US not participating in a UN climate forum will be a relatively minor concern compared to his administration’s likely continued rollback of environmental regulations and boosterism of fossil fuels. Another four years of Trump will only accelerate emissions trends, since it will give the administration a second chance on some rollbacks—relaxing methane emissions standards, for example—that have been stymied by courts.

If Biden wins, he will have a chance to deploy those tools again, and claw back some credibility and influence for the US in global climate politics. He plans to rejoin the Paris agreement on day one of his term, and would have until November 2021 to hammer out the details of his climate agenda, when the next Paris-related global summit will be held. If he loses, the planet will just have to fix itself without help from the country most responsible for breaking it.