President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change casts doubt over efforts to address the issue. The Agreement, which is now signed by all world governments except the U.S., Syria and Nicaragua, is an effort to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100. Despite recent events, Mott Environment Program Officer Sandra Smithey says burgeoning efforts by U.S. cities, states and companies to address climate change will continue. In this Q&A, she explores the potential implications of leaving the Paris Agreement and explains why she is guardedly optimistic about the future.
Mott: What is the significance of the U.S. leaving the Paris Agreement?
Sandra Smithey (SS): As the world’s second largest emitter of pollutants that contribute to climate change, the U.S. is a major player on the issue. I believe leaving the Paris Agreement will hurt global efforts to curb climate change and will negatively affect the U.S. economy, particularly the energy industry. The rest of the world is moving forward on renewable energy, innovation and clean energy technologies. The U.S., in my view, is standing still by focusing largely on fossil fuels. Even if leaving the Paris Agreement benefits the U.S. economy in the short term, I believe the U.S. will fall far behind the rest of the world technologically in the long term. We’re not going to be part of the next round of technological advancement that improves solar power applications and distribution of renewable energy.
Mott: Can a country that signed an international agreement simply walk away from it?
SS: No. The U.S. has four years of commitments under the Paris Agreement that former President Obama signed in 2016. Among other things, we must continue to track and report emissions of climate-changing pollutants through 2020.
Mott: Will bowing out of the agreement affect other countries?
SS: I believe it will. The U.S. government previously committed $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a global fund that helps developing countries initiate renewable energy projects and adapt to climate change impacts. The U.S. has provided $1 billion so far, but the Administration’s 2018 budget does not include additional contributions.
Mott: Will greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. increase and contribute to global climate change worsening?
SS: I doubt it, at least in the short term. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have decreased in recent years. Utilities are mothballing coal-fired power plants or converting those facilities to cleaner-burning natural gas, and many industries are switching to renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar. You just can’t go backwards on some issues. The clean energy transition is being driven by economics.
Mott: Has the U.S. abandoned all efforts to address climate change?
SS: No. Many of the largest cities and states in the U.S., as well as major corporations, remain committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Additionally, recent polls showed most U.S. voters want the federal government to address climate change before it’s too late. We still have the capacity to move forward on this issue. I am particularly encouraged by the actions of local and state governments to make their own Paris Agreement commitments. This gives me hope for the future.