The New Reality of the Paris Agreement and American Business

The political situation in the United States around climate change has always been complicated. In the 80s and 90s, climate change became an issue of cultural significance. Later, the momentum rapidly progressed under the Obama presidency.

Unfortunately, as a result of recent actions by the Trump administration, much of this progress is in jeopardy. Donald Trump’s recent move to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement is a wrong-headed and dangerous move, calculated to placate his blue-collar and big-oil backers. While largely symbolic, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will have very real implications for US businesses and the environment.

The Paris Agreement, which allows signatories to set their own goals and benchmarks in reducing emissions, has succeeded for the most part in what it was created to do: get the global community as a whole to the table to discuss climate change. While it offers no specific mechanisms to enforce compliance and does not create objective standards to measure progress, it has sparked massive awareness about climate change. Because of the Paris Agreement, dozens of developing countries have begun their own climate action initiatives. China, for instance, recently announced that it would spend $360 billion by 2020 on renewable energy, with the goal of completely eliminating coal power plants (1). India set similar goals, committing to use less fossil fuels and invest in the efficiency of their power grid, with many other developing countries across Asia and Africa following suite. In the United States, the federal government set higher auto-efficiency standards and demanded less carbon emissions from fossil fuel power plants (2). All of these actions were sparked by the Paris Agreement. Clearly, the Paris Agreement has been a valuable tool to gather global support around climate change. A complete US withdrawal from the treaty is a major setback.

The environmental implications of US withdrawal are not necessarily clear. Trump set a timetable of close to 3 years to withdrawal from the Agreement, leaving many unknowns about how rapidly US regulations will be restructured. We do know, however, that US emissions are unlikely to decrease, with most experts projecting that emissions will remain flat over the next decade (3). It is also fair to assume that less federal support will be given to clean energy, which could jeopardize the profitability of many renewable-tech companies. In addition, the UN Renewable Climate Fund, which funds renewable-energy projects in developing countries, will likely receive no financial support from the US government (4). Withdrawing from the Agreement means no central coordination against climate change and little to no funding of international research of renewable infrastructure.

The business implications of this are more easily measurable. Renewable energy is the fastest growing industry in the US, estimated to be worth over $200 billion in revenue a year. Trump’s withdrawal from the Agreement signals that the federal government will also reduce subsidies for clean-technology, which has helped fuel its rapid growth. Losing growth in this industry would mean thousands of jobs lost, and potential billions lost in stock investments. Most large corporations directly benefit from cutting edge cleantech; cheap and efficient solar panels, power storage, and building efficiency having helped to drastically reduce their operations costs over the past decade. In addition, many businesses fear that societal blowback will negatively impact their businesses.

Leaving the Paris Agreement was an extremely unpopular move, with over 65% of Americans estimated to be in opposition (5). Businesses realize that the United States needs to be at the bargaining table on climate change, because it is such a huge issue to American voters and consumers.

The decision to leave the Paris Agreement faced immediate and sharp backlash, with the most vociferous being from the business community. In early May, the CEOs of 30 Fortune-500 US corporations wrote a letter to Trump, urging him to stay in the Agreement. The corporations included Coca-Cola, 3M, PG&E, and Disney (6). Only a few short days after the announcement, over 360 companies and several hundred local state municipalities signed an open letter pledging to take independent action on climate change regardless of the federal government’s policies (7). Business magnate Michael Bloomberg organized the letter, and personally pledged  to give $15 million to the UN Renewable Energy Fund to help offset funds it would lose because of US withdrawal (8). These businesses, in their own words, seek to set an example and demonstrate that “the actors that will provide the leadership necessary to meet our Paris commitment are found in city halls, state capitols, colleges and universities, investors and businesses”(9).

The way forward, then, is clear. Businesses and individuals must act independently.

It is widely understood that climate change cannot be ignored. Without the support of the US federal government, making progress here at home will be difficult. However, as businesses and individuals across the United States are showing, independent action can make an impact.

Renewable energy companies and products (solar and electric vehicles, for example) must be supported with the vote of our dollars. Climate research must be independently funded and charities that give to climate research need donations. The oil-interests and businesses that bought influence in the White House must be boycotted and petitioned, while the politicians who supported this decision must be voted out of office. Above all, as a society, we must raise our voice and rage against the cabal of business interests that do not care about our environment.

Here’s what we can all do: join dozens of businesses, government organizations, and universities and add your company’s name to this “statement of unity” letter (and check out “We Are Still In“). This is a pledge that says that all will “achieve and eventually exceed America’s original commitment to the Paris Agreement. We can join forces with those in the international community to ensure that we reach our climate change goals.