One year on: U.S. business is still committed to the Paris Agreement
If I've taken one thing away from the Donald Trump presidency so far, it is that time spent trying to understand the rationale or motivation for the president's decisions rarely feels well spent. And so it was with his announcement a year ago that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement — despite intense lobbying for him to stay in from people and groups that he trusts, including his own family and big business.
He couched the withdrawal in terms of U.S. competitiveness, threats to the coal industry and unfairness to the U.S. — which, given that each country sets its own targets under the Paris Agreement, doesn’t really hang together. The Washington Post fact-checked the speech and found it "relied on dubious facts and unfounded claims." Whatever the reasons, I'm not sure he could have predicted what would come next. Trump's announcement served not as a brake on progress but rather a galvanizing event that has moved the climate agenda further and faster than we could have hoped for.
The Paris Agreement was signed by 195 nations in December 2015 — a milestone achievement in climate negotiations. As its architect, former U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres said, "Shifting the conversation from the prevailing narrative 'we will if you will' to the understanding that we can do it together was fundamental to securing the Paris Agreement."
When the U.S. turned around and said "we won't," the international community received a highly damaging blow. The Paris Agreement was less than two years old and newly into the implementation phase with a lot of work to be done on delivery.
The blowback on Trump was instant. Condemnation from world and business leaders followed swiftly, and many Americans themselves rejected the announcement outright, declaring their commitment to the Paris Agreement. Although the We Are Still In campaign didn't exist a year ago, it is now made up of over 2,700 leaders from states, cities and businesses, representing 159 million people and $6.2 trillion in GDP.
The Climate Group has seen a surge in activity from U.S. businesses and state governments that have stepped up their climate action and urgency in the past year.
Apple, Google and Wells Fargo have all reached 100 percent renewable electricity just in the last few months. Fifth Third Bank is building a solar farm in North Carolina that will meet 100 percent of its electricity demand. General Motors signed a wind power purchase agreement to cover its operational needs in Indiana and Ohio. And Microsoft’s new solar farm in Virginia is the largest solar agreement in the U.S.
While Trump showed support for coal, corporations were rolling out renewable energy infrastructure. New York will require all power plants to meet stringent CO2 limits, with a view to ending the use of coal in state power plants as soon as 2020. Despite Trump's best efforts, more coal plants retired in the first month of 2018 than between 2009 and 2011. There are 260,000 solar workers in the U.S., five times the number of coal miners.
Thirteen major U.S. companies have joined our renewable energy initiative RE100 in the past year, including financial giants Citi, Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan and Visa, and big consumer companies such as T-Mobile, Kellogg's and Clif Bar. These corporate commitments to 100 percent renewable electricity send a powerful signal that business wants easy access to renewable energy both in the U.S. and globally — and sooner rather than later.
This trend is not limited to the U.S. At the end of 2017, Adani Group cancelled a $2 billion contract with a mining services company for work on its proposed Carmichael coal mine in Australia due to a failure to secure Chinese investment for the project. A clear signal of a shift away from deeper Chinese investment in coal.
The question we find so many businesses, investors, state governments and nonprofits asking themselves and others is, "What side of history do we want to be on?"
The answer is pretty clear. In the past 10 years, the costs of wind generation, LEDs, lithium-ion batteries and solar photovoltaics have fallen by 70 percent or more. Clean energy creates more jobs than the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. — an estimated 4.5 million of them, in fact, up from 3.4 million jobs in 2011. With clean energy technologies continuing to get cheaper, a greater share of sustainable jobs being created, and businesses and state governments making real commitments to cut carbon emissions — it's clear that Trump is on the wrong side of history with this one.
When the Trump administration announced the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Agreement a year ago, it certainly galvanized action. But not the type of action that was probably intended. Despite all of the positive stories of defiance, this is not the time to be complacent. We need to pick up the pace to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement — with companies and policymakers using their influence to spur wider climate action. We need earlier targets, increased ambition that allows us to beat these targets and more action on energy saving and electric vehicles.
The commitments of U.S. businesses and state governments send a powerful signal that they are not aligned with the federal government when it comes to climate. Let us acknowledge the collective progress from the past year and continue with this determination in the 12 months to come.