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Trump’s Paris retreat: What the climate accord actually does, and how Minnesota might move forward anyway

The agreement was not a treaty and therefore nonbinding; it has a lot more to do with leadership on climate change.

Negotiated over the course of six years, and completed in December 2015, the Paris climate pact brings together 197 nations in a voluntary agreement to combat climate change.
REUTERS/Charles Platiau

When President Trump announced that the U.S. would be leaving the Paris Accord, the 200-nation agreement on fighting climate change, it set off shockwaves around the country and the world.

Trump’s Democratic foes blasted his decision as irresponsible and short-sighted; DFL Rep. Betty McCollum went so far as to say that it makes America “an environmental rogue nation” and “condemn[s] the next generation to the hell of an overheated planet.”

This rhetoric is fueled by a belief that the withdrawal of the U.S. — the world’s second-biggest emitter of carbon — from the landmark climate accord holds serious consequences for efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

But while Trump may have dragged the federal government to the sidelines of the climate change effort, some U.S. states and cities — Minnesota, Minneapolis and St. Paul — are determined to remain with the rest of the world. In the wake of Trump’s announcement, governors and mayors around the U.S. moved quickly to denounce Trump’s decision, and pledged to remain committed to complying with the goals outlined in the Paris agreement.

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In Minnesota, environmental policymakers and advocates may not be happy with the exit from Paris, but they remain confident that the state’s agenda to reduce carbon emissions will proceed as planned. If anything, the White House’s defiance has strengthened their will to act.

Judgment of Paris

So, what obligations exactly did Trump get the U.S. out of? Technically, none, because the Paris agreement is voluntary, but that doesn’t capture the whole, nuanced story.

Negotiated over the course of six years, and completed in December 2015, the Paris climate pact brings together 197 nations in a voluntary agreement to combat climate change, with the top-line goal of preventing the global rise in temperature from exceeding two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

That two-degree mark is not necessarily a tipping point for the climate, but many scientists forecast significant environmental consequences if the global rise in temperature were to pass that threshold. (According to some estimates, the status quo could result in a temperature rise well beyond three degrees celsius by 2100.)

Under the framework of the agreement, each participating country is meant to submit its own carbon-reduction goals, but because it’s voluntary, the agreement doesn’t include any punishment for not meeting those goals. (If the goals were compulsory, the agreement would be a treaty — and thus subject to ratification in Congress, where it’d be dead-on-arrival with the GOP majority.)

Instead, the pact’s architects relied on a simple, but powerful factor to encourage compliance: peer pressure. Under the agreement, countries committed to releasing accurate data to the international community so that it can assess nations’ progress — or lack thereof — toward meeting their climate goals.

The U.S. had set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. Similar developed economies, like Australia, had roughly the same target, while Canada aimed for a 30 percent reduction by 2030.

China, meanwhile, aims to cut emissions by two-thirds, while the European Union aims to do so by at least 40 percent.

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Because climate change is expected to affect poorer countries more than wealthier ones — and because industrializing countries face barriers to using the fossil fuels that the U.S. and others exploited to develop rapidly — Paris also stipulates that wealthier nations should provide $100 billion in annual aid by 2020.

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Though Trump’s decision was accompanied by a few months of will-he-or-won’t-he, few observers were surprised that the president broke from the Paris agreement. Trump has criticized climate science, once calling it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. (His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Trump believes climate change is real, but the president has never said it himself.)

Still, Trump has cast efforts to stop climate change as deleterious for the economy, even as major business interests — including Minnesota companies like 3M and Cargill — lobbied him to stay in the agreement.

In his remarks on Thursday, Trump framed the Paris pact as a bad deal for the U.S. that would hamstring certain domestic industries, such as coal, while advantaging foreign competitors like China and India.

“This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States,” Trump proclaimed. “ The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement… for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.”

Progress in Minnesota

With Trump’s announcement, the U.S. is on a four-year timeline to exit the Paris agreement, meaning its withdrawal will be final on November 4, 2020 — a day after the next presidential election.

Until then, U.S. participation in the pact will be nominal, explains J. Drake Hamilton, a delegate to the 2015 Paris talks and the science policy director at Fresh Energy, a Minnesota clean energy advocacy group.

The U.S. might still send “token delegations” to annual climate talks, she says, but the U.S. will have no say in how the pact’s signatories develop and adjust the agreement’s language, as they are expected to.

Minnesota advocates for a strong response to climate change are disappointed that the U.S., for now, no longer has a seat at the global table. But they sounded confident in the wake of Trump’s decision, arguing that climate progress in Minnesota will happen whether Washington is on board or not.

According to Anne Hunt, a longtime environmental policy adviser for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Trump’s action was “not unexpected” but added that “subnational governments have been leading on this issue for more than a decade.”

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Indeed, advocates say much progress has been made already: they point to the decade-old Next Generation Energy Act, approved by the state legislature, as a major reason why. Hamilton says the law, which aimed to have Minnesota get a quarter of its power from renewable sources by 2025, brought the share of renewable energy in Minnesota from two percent in 2004 to 23 percent last year.

The expected closing of two Xcel Energy-operated coal plants in Sherburne County — which would reduce the company’s Minnesota emissions by 60 percent — would help the state hit more ambitious goals.

Minnesota, then, was on track to meet its goals under the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s sweeping climate policy designed to ensure the U.S. met its obligations under the Paris accord. Trump has since revoked the Clean Power Plan.

‘We’ll be doubling down’

If Minnesota was already on a fairly proactive carbon-reduction path before Trump’s election, advocates say the exit from Paris underscores the need for states and cities to take increased action to pick up Washington’s slack.

Gov. Mark Dayton joined other governors in May to urge Trump not to withdraw from the Paris accord; California’s governor, Jerry Brown, is taking on an aggressive role as a U.S. voice for climate change action in the world — the Los Angeles Times called him the “unofficial ambassador” on the issue.

While California might be at the vanguard of state climate action, Minnesota advocates expect the North Star State to play a significant role too, perhaps more so than its midwestern neighbors.

“The rest of the world understands we have leadership states that differ from national policy,” Hamilton says. “But they’re looking to see if we’re amping up our ambitions. That’s why Minnesota needs to set a higher bar, double our renewable energy standards.”

Cities are looking to set a higher bar, too. On Thursday, a group of mayors calling themselves the Climate Mayors denounced the withdrawal from Paris, and affirmed they will “adopt, honor, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement. We will intensify efforts to meet each of our cities’ current climate goals, push for new action to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.”

Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, along with the mayors of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and dozens of other cities, signed on to the letter.

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According to Anu Ramaswami, an expert on sustainable cities at the University of Minnesota, urban areas are on the front lines of climate change and are committed to taking action. “The cities I work with say, when climate extremes come, we have to deal with extreme heat, flooding, and cold events. They feel they’re at the forefront.”

In St. Paul, Hunt says, the goal is to make city operations carbon-neutral by 2030, and to make the entire city carbon-neutral by 2050. The state of Minnesota, she points out, only aims for 80 percent carbon reductions by that year. Up the river, Minneapolis is aiming for a 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

“St. Paul, as the capital city, we want to be a leader on this and be able to set the standard for the state,” Hunt says. In the commercial and residential building sector, which accounts for over half of energy use in St.Paul, Hunt says the city will aim to work with them to reduce energy costs. Elsewhere, she says the city is aiming to bring down transportation emissions — and the 5.5. Million miles driven in the city every day — by adding transit and bike options.

“We’ll be doubling down,” she said, “making sure we’re doing everything that we can.”

Washington still matters

These efforts are likely to find support in Minnesota’s business community. Minnesota companies, particularly agribusiness interests like Cargill and General Mills, have voiced their disappointment with the U.S. exit from Paris.

These kinds of companies thrive on stability, says Jessica Hellmann, a participant in the Paris conference and a climate adaptation expert at the University of Minnesota.

“If you’re a food company, your business involves the real world,” she says. “Profound climate change is not good for business. You want the world to address this problem because you see the science and know it’s a problem.”

“I don’t see much reason, except for maybe partisan politics, for why Minnesota state legislators, or anyone in the state of Minnesota, should align itself strongly with the Trump administration on this,” Hellmann added. “It doesn’t match the interests of our big industries here.”

Washington may not entirely disengage from climate, however. According to Rep. McCollum, who is the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee subpanel for the environment, there are still things that Democrats can do in Congress, even with a majority that does not see climate change as a priority.

Democrats, she said, can work with the power of the purse to help cities that want to move forward. “We can play a role in tax policy, or funding, that we’re there trying to make sure that our companies and our municipalities can compete globally.”

Policymakers on the state and municipal levels in Minnesota will continue to debate and consider climate initiatives regardless of Washington’s involvement. And, as experts point out, the Paris pact was voluntary — Trump could have easily remained in the agreement while avoiding any measures to comply with it.

Instead, Trump sent a strong message that the U.S. will not have anything to do with serious climate negotiations on the world stage. (His call to renegotiate the pact to get better terms for the U.S. was swiftly brushed off by European authorities.)

“Essentially, the U.S. as a country is no longer engaged in the shared global mission to ratchet down emissions,” Hamilton says. “The U.S. is losing an opportunity to negotiate the key parts of the Paris rulebook.”

And, the U of M’s Ramaswami says, that makes state and local action less powerful than it could be. “If you have opposing policies at different levels, your effect is reduced,” she said. “Even if California did so many things, you might have federal policies that either oppose it, or by absence of support dilute it. That’s the situation people were hoping to avoid.”

Correction: This article previously misstated the extent of statewide carbon reduction by closing Xcel’s Sherburne County coal plants.