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How Much Damage Can Trump Actually Do to Global Climate Efforts?

First, the bad news: The US is very important to the Paris Agreement.

If Donald Trump chooses not to enforce Obama’s climate policies, there is very little chance the world will be able to contain global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Trump’s cabinet appointments so far indicate that he very likely intends to do all he can to erase Obama’s climate legacy, including ignoring America’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to cut climate change-causing emissions by at least 26 percent of 2005 levels by 2025.

This, to say the least, is bad news for the climate. An analysis by the think tank Climate Interactive, which produces data on which many countries’ governments rely, finds that 20 percent of the global emissions cuts that can achieved under the Paris Agreement come from the US’s commitments.

“Therefore, if the United States pulls out of the Paris Agreement or does not fulfill its obligations, then one-fifth of the gains of the agreement could be lost,” the group wrote in a statement following the US presidential election. As the world’s second-highest emitter, the US has an outsized impact on global climate negotiations.

What’s more, research by Climate Interactive finds that at the moment, even if every country (including the US) honors their commitment, we’re on course for 3.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. For the world to stay within the 2-degree goal contained in the Paris Agreement, countries would have to strengthen their commitments beyond those that they’ve currently made.

The 2-degrees-of-warming goal is the upper threshold set by the Paris Agreement, and already lies beyond climate tipping points that would lock in further warming, independent of human activity. Allowing the planet to warm by 2 degrees won’t be good, and allowing it to warm by more will be worse. As the Paris Agreement came to fruition, negotiators acknowledged that current commitments weren’t enough to stay within 2 degrees, and that countries would have to up their efforts to keep the world from traveling down the pathway to 3.5 degrees.

Of course, with the election of Donald Trump, it now looks as if at least one major country will not be strengthening its commitment, or even honoring its commitment. Trump has pledged to “cancel” the Paris Agreement. And though “canceling” the US’s involvement in the agreement isn’t so simple, he can simply ignore it.

Trump has, in particular, championed coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. He pledged to lift a moratorium imposed by the Obama administration that prevents new mining operations from opening up on public land. And though it would be difficult for Trump to quickly undo Obama’s Clean Power Plan — a set of policies designed to help the US fulfill it’s Paris Agreement commitment — he could order his new EPA chief to rewrite the rules of the plan so that states could burn quite a bit of dirty fuel and still be in compliance with the law. Alternatively, with a new Supreme Court Justice filling Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat, a pending challenge to the Clean Power Plan may succeed in overturning it.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Trump won’t be able to fully reverse the forward movement the US made under Obama, because, in large part, the clean energy revolution — in the US and globally — is at this point moving forward on its own, independent of federal efforts to green the US economy.

“We are now in a technology driven low-carbon transition,” says Anthony Hobley, CEO of the London-based Carbon Tracker initiative, which researches sustainable investment. “It is no longer a case of if. But it is a case of when, or how quickly, that transition takes place — and of course that’s critical to us keeping within the carbon budget and having a chance of maintaining a stable climate system.”

“But the transition — Trump can’t stop that any more than a US president could stop the transition from steam locomotive to the automobile or from the typewriter to the word processor.”

While the Obama administration’s policies were forcing some of the dirtiest states and industries to cut emissions, other states, cities and businesses were taking their own steps to become more green. This accounts for some of America’s progress toward becoming more sustainable, and is progress that Trump won’t be able reverse.

The dropping cost of clean energy is helping these efforts, and, along with cheap natural gas, has played a role in collapsing the market for coal. One analysis, by Carbon Tracker, Energy Transition Advisors and Earth Track, looked at coal leases on federal land in the Powder River Basin, and found that the existing supply of coal available through those leases outweighs the demand for coal to such an extent that no new leases would be needed until 2040. In other words, Trump’s plans to lift Obama’s coal moratorium will not necessarily lead to more coal coming out of the ground.

Trump’s agenda, however, may encourage fossil fuel companies, giving “false hope” to “those who believe they can carry on as if nothing is changing,” Hobley says. “But in many ways, as Obama has said, it wasn’t necessarily the policies he put in place that killed coal, it was market forces. And I think that will still be true under Trump.”

The greatest threat Trump poses to the climate, then, is to the potential of future global action. It is unlikely he will be able to make the US substantially less sustainable. But even if the US doesn’t take a full step backward, standing still could also prove quite disastrous. Analyses show that the status quo is not enough. If every country were to give up on climate action and continue “business as usual,” Climate Interactive finds that we’d be headed for 4.5 degrees Celsius (thats 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit!) of warming by 2100.

Countries will have to ratchet up their efforts, and the Paris Agreement is the best mechanism the world has come up with so far to encourage governments to do so. With Trump possibly turning his back on the agreement, it makes it all but certain that, in the next four years, the US will not be proposing any federal efforts to cut emissions further. The world will have to hope that other countries choose not to follow its example.