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Paris Agreement: Don't count the US out just yet

Paris Agreement: Don't count the US out just yet
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Today, the United States officially withdraws from the Paris Agreement, becoming the first and only country to do so. This decision is clearly wrongheaded and flies in the face of public opinion and common sense. 

The vast majority of people in the United States support the Paris Agreement, in which countries commit to clear targets, but in a non-binding way. Most of the nation has declared “We Are Still In,” even if the Trump administration does not. Fortunately, a collection of over 4,000 non-federal actors including leading states, cities and businesses, have been working for years to try to fulfill the original U.S. commitments under Paris. The U.S. federal government should still rejoin Paris, and when we hopefully do, the ambitious policies of those actors can form a secure foundation for a new U.S. contribution under the agreement to global climate action.

Both of our organizations have contributed to the America’s Pledge initiative, which has tracked, analyzed and showcased actions by U.S. states, cities, businesses and other non-federal actors to drive down greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Numerous analyses from America’s Pledge have demonstrated that the coalitions of non-federal actors committed to climate action represent nearly 70 percent of the U.S. GDP, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population and over half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. These city, state, businesses and other leaders have demonstrated their commitment to drive down greenhouse gas emissions, despite the Trump administration’s consistent undermining of climate action. 

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On top of that, the American public increasingly supports government action to address climate change. According to Pew Research Center, over two-thirds of Americans support a 100 percent clean economy by 2050, prioritization of clean energy over fossil fuels and stronger fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. 

Over the last three years, state and local leaders have taken unprecedented action to keep the United States on a path of climate progress, with real and significant results. The number of electrical vehicles (EVs) on the road has doubled. The number of cities committed to 100 percent renewable electricity has quintupled. Sixteen states have committed to phase down super-pollutant hydrofluorocarbons. Seven states and 27 gas companies have committed to methane leak reduction. And 57 utilities representing two-thirds of all U.S. customers have established carbon reduction goals. And these are just a few key accomplishments. 

And the commitment of these leaders is so strong that even COVID-19 and the economic recession have not shaken their progress. When facing public health and economic crises, local leaders and industry have not fallen back on the old way of doing things. Instead, they have continued to push forward toward a clean energy economy. Economic pressures have actually reinforced the relative strength of clean energy and the relative weakness of fossil fuels. Thanks to bottom-up leadership, strong market fundamentals and increasing public support, the events of 2020 suggest that we have clearly passed a tipping point in the U.S. clean energy transition.  

This is great news. Don’t count us out. We are still in. 

Nevertheless, the actions of these state and local leaders — remarkable and commendable though they are — will not ultimately be enough on their own. If we are going to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, all parts of society need to work together to accelerate a coordinated and comprehensive all-in climate strategy. We need ambitious action from all levels of government; from public, private and civil society sectors; and across local, national and international geographies.  

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Ultimately, we need the federal government to step forward to enact legislative policies and regulations that can further bend down the curve of greenhouse gas emissions. We need the federal government to work hand-in-hand with non-federal leaders to drive coordinated and ambitious climate action. We need state and local leadership to help to achieve our international climate targets. We need to collaborate radically to address the climate crisis together. Indeed, a silver lining of the last four years is the resulting realization that a strong national climate policy is more than just a strong federal policy — it must involve everyone. 

If well-planned and implemented, the energy transformation could be an economic boon and major job creator. Dollar-for-dollar, investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency produce nearly three times as many jobs as funding fossil fuels — and clean energy jobs pay 8 to 19 percent higher than the national average. Since many clean energy technologies are already cheaper than their fossil-fuel competitors (and almost all will be before 2030), the transition to a low-carbon economy will also enhance prosperity and lower costs. The United States should seize on this opportunity to reestablish and solidify its position as a leader in the clean industries of the 21st century, improve the health of citizens and provide a fairer world for underserved communities. 

Meeting the goal of the Paris Agreement will not only help countries to innovate and create new economic opportunities, it will also reduce the impacts and associated costs of future climate-related disasters. That is why the United States should immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement. 

By working with the global community, the United States can do its part to help put the country and the world toward a path to net-zero emissions, while strengthening its economy, creating jobs, improving public health, reducing pollution and promoting equity. Now that’s an easy decision. 

Jules Kortenhorst is the CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute. Follow the organization on Twitter @RockyMtnInst. Andrew Steer is the CEO of the World Resources Institute. Follow the organization on Twitter @WorldResources.