President Trump’s executive action Tuesday to begin unraveling the Clean Power Plan may also signal America’s de facto exit from the landmark Paris climate treaty — former President Barack Obama’s signature environmental achievement.
The Clean Power Plan, the first set of national limits on greenhouse gas pollution from power plants, is crucial to the U.S. meeting President Obama’s pledge to cut emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025.
While Mr. Trump has yet to formally pull out of the Paris deal — a nonbinding agreement with no enforcement mechanisms other than public shaming — his move Tuesday essentially guarantees the U.S. won’t meet the ambitious target.
“It was extraordinarily unlikely we would’ve met President Obama’s Paris pledge under the best of circumstances. But clearly, if the Trump administration goes through with what’s on the table so far, it will be impossible to meet the pledge,” said Stephen Eule, vice president for climate and technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy.
The Clean Power Plan, which was stayed by the Supreme Court last year and has not gone into full effect, calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from the power sector by 2030, and would greatly shrink coal’s share of electricity generation in the process.
That reduction is central to meeting the broader Paris goal, as are other regulations now under review, including fuel economy standards for automobiles.
Within the administration, there’s an ongoing debate over whether to stay in the Paris deal or formally withdraw. The agreement itself remains highly controversial, not only because of the onerous measures the U.S. would have to put in place to meet its targets but also because it gives China, the world’s biggest polluter, a free pass for the next 13 years.
Under Paris, China has to do virtually nothing until 2030, when the country says its greenhouse gas emissions will peak and then slowly begin dropping each year thereafter.
India, another major polluter, also faces no targets for more than a decade.
There’s no indication that a decision on the Paris deal is on the immediate horizon, but top officials within the administration increasingly are speaking out. Even without technically disavowing the deal, it’s becoming clear the White House has no intention whatsoever of honoring Mr. Obama’s commitment.
“What was wrong with Paris was not just that it … failed to be treated as a treaty, but China and India, the largest producers of CO2 internationally, got away scot-free. They didn’t have to take steps until 2030,” Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt told ABC News over the weekend.
“So we’ve penalized ourselves through lost jobs, while China and India didn’t take steps to address the issue internationally. So Paris was just a bad deal, in my estimation,” he said.
A senior White House official on Monday evening said it’s “still under discussion” whether to leave formally the Paris agreement, and wouldn’t elaborate on how the administration could possibly meet its commitment while eliminating rules to cut emissions.
In addition to the Clean Power Plan, the official also confirmed that Tuesday’s executive order will eliminate Obama administration estimates on the “social cost of carbon,” will end a federal moratorium on new coal leases and will take other steps to reduce regulations and promote American energy independence.
The order, however, is by no means the final word on the Clean Power Plan.
The EPA still must hold public hearings, accept public comments, consult with stakeholders and likely face numerous lawsuits in its effort to eliminate the Clean Power Plan altogether.
Specialists have said it will take at least one year, possibly longer, to remove it from the books completely.
Exiting the Paris deal is a different story. Because the agreement was never submitted to the Senate to be approved as a formal treaty, there’s nothing stopping the administration from quickly ending U.S. participation.
Supporters of the Paris deal say the White House is sending the wrong signal to the rest of the world by approving new fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL oil pipeline while backing down on emissions-reduction goals.
“The Trump administration says ‘yes’ to sending the dirtiest Canadian oil to Latin America and China after it crosses the American plains, but ‘no’ to providing American leadership as China and Latin America make historic commitments to the global agreement on climate change,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said Monday.
Indeed, there would seem to be little reason for the rest of the world to accept U.S. leadership on climate issues if the administration abandons Paris.
“We lose any ability, any moral authority, to say to any other country, ‘You have to clean up your act,’” said Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator during the George W. Bush administration.
But some analysts say the U.S. can retain a global voice on emissions even while undoing regulations, like the Clean Power Plan, that would hamper economic growth at home.
“It would be possible … to keep our seat at the table while still making fundamental changes to our domestic regulations. This position is all the more reasonable in light of the fact that market forces are already advancing the ball toward reasonable greenhouse gas goals,” said Scott Segal, a partner at Washington’s Bracewell law firm who specializes in energy and environmental issues.