President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris compact on climate change was barely four days old when more than 1,200 governors, mayors and businesses promised to do whatever they could to help the United States meet the climate goals President Barack Obama had committed to in the agreement. In a letter, titled “We Are Still In,” they declared that global warming imposes real and rising costs, while the clean energy economy to which the Paris agreement aspires presents enormous opportunities for American businesses and workers.
The statement was further evidence that Mr. Trump, as polls have shown, is out of touch with the American people. Yet this question remains: Can the United States meet its commitments without federal involvement? To many analysts, it’s a hopeless task: Mr. Trump has not only removed America from a leadership role in the climate fight. He has also ordered his minions to kill or weaken beyond recognition every federal initiative on which Mr. Obama had based his pledge.
It would be unwise, however, to give in to pessimism.
Some context: The Paris agreement committed more than 190 nations to a collective effort to limit the rise in global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial temperatures. To that end, Mr. Obama promised to lower America’s greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. That pledge was crucial to the overall goal; according to the think tank Climate Interactive, Mr. Obama’s ambitious promise would account for one-fifth of the hoped-for global emissions reduction out to the year 2030.
Here’s the good news: Thanks to market forces (chiefly the shift from dirty coal to cleaner natural gas); increased use of wind and solar power; more efficient vehicles, buildings and appliances; and aggressive state and local policies, emissions have already dropped about 12 percent from 2005 levels, more than 40 percent of Mr. Obama’s target. Further progress along these lines, without any new federal policies, would get us to a total emissions reduction of 15 percent to 19 percent by 2025, according to the Rhodium Group — way short of Mr. Obama’s pledge. But if we could add back in the Obama initiatives — for instance, the mandatory shutdown of all old coal-fired power plants, which are rules Mr. Trump wants to kill — we’d get to 23 percent, which is much closer.
Mr. Trump, in short, has left a hole to fill. How to do it?
There are several pathways. First, state action: 29 states plus the District of Columbia have targets for how much of their electricity should come from renewable or alternative energy sources, and nine others have voluntary standards. Maryland and Michigan recently raised their targets. The nation’s most populous state, California, is also its most ambitious. It is on track to get 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and 50 percent by 2030. It also has a cap-and-trade system to put a price on emissions; Quebec is part of that system and Ontario will soon join. Other states ought to join that system, too.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington have also set aggressive targets. Even red states like Iowa, Kansas and Texas have found that it makes economic sense to switch from coal to nonpolluting sources like wind, in part because costs of renewables have dropped sharply. Tucson Electric Power, an Arizona utility, recently announced that it would buy power from a solar farm for less than 3 cents a kilowatt-hour, which is less than half of what it paid in recent years. Experts say that price is comparable to the cost of power from plants fueled by natural gas. Utilities in North Carolina, Michiganand elsewhere plan to close coal-fired power plants.
Cities will also play a big role. New York and others are working to increase energy efficiency by updating building codes. They can also reduce emissions while improving public health by investing more in mass transit and electric vehicle charging stations. Businesses like Apple and Google say they intend to get all or nearly all of their energy from renewable sources. And who knows where electric vehicles will take us?
In 2008, the government projected that carbon emissions from power plants, industry, transportation and buildings would grow about 1 percent a year. Instead, they fell. Progress is possible, even with Mr. Trump standing in the way.