The United States is leaving an international agreement aimed at lowering greenhouse gases.
“I am fighting every day for the great people of this country,” President Donald Trump said during a speech at the White House Thursday afternoon. “Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.”
Here’s how the agreement works and what U.S. withdrawal means:
What is the Paris climate agreement?
It’s a promise by 195 countries to each develop their own plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s nonbinding, which means countries don’t face penalties for failing to meet their targets.
The idea was that countries would encourage each other and maintain the flexibility to change their own plan as circumstances in their countries change.
What did America promise to do?
Former President Barack Obama promised to cut our greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below where they were in 2005 by 2025.
He also pledged $3 billion in aid for poorer countries by 2020.
How does withdrawal work?
It’s not something that would happen overnight.
Technically, it would take four years to formally withdraw from the agreement.
Trump could stop sending people to future climate meetings immediately though. And he wouldn’t face any penalty for withdrawing since the agreement is nonbinding.
That also leaves the door open for a future American president to re-enter the agreement.
What would withdrawal mean for climate efforts at home?
Trump said the Paris deal “punishes” the United States. And he claimed staying in the agreement would cost the U.S. 2.7 million jobs, citing data from the National Economic Research Associates.
But cities, states and private companies could continue their own clean power plans.
“Even though Donald Trump is trying to save this industry, I think it’s a bit like trying to save the eight-track tape in a world of compact discs and digitized music,” said Max BoyKoff, a science and technology professor at the University of Colorado. “It can be a good gesture, but it is going against these market forces.”
That’s because the technology around wind and solar keeps improving while also dropping in price.
The president can slow the pace at which the country moves towards renewable energy, but he can’t stop it from happening, Boykoff said.
For example, Xcel plans to keep retiring coal plants in Colorado while building new wind and solar farms regardless of what happens in Washington. It’s an economic decision for them. Wind is now cheaper than coal in Colorado.
And California is moving forward with its own plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Leaving the agreement is largely symbolic, Boykoff said.
What to watch for is whether the president pushes to relax emissions and fuel efficiency standards for cars and / or modify the U.S. Clean Power Plan.
That’s a plan former President Barack Obama implemented to curb emissions at power plants for the first time.
“It is important to have this strong, coordinated, cooperative stance at the U.S. federal level in order to more capably meet our emissions reductions at all levels … ,” Boykoff said. “Practically speaking, the Clean Power Plan, fuel emissions standards are clear indications of whether or not the United States will meet their goals.”
What would withdrawal mean for climate efforts abroad?
President Xi Jinping of China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, told the United Nations Wednesday that the Paris agreement must not fail, according to The Guardian.
“All parties should work together to implement the Paris agreement,” Xi said. “China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations.”
Both Xi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel plan to move forward with or without the U.S.
Still, the U.S. emits about 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.
“And so removing themselves (the U.S.) in that symbolic act does make a difference on climate terms,” Boykoff said.
Would U.S. withdrawal unravel the agreement?
That depends on whether the U.S. leaves or attempts to change the terms of its deal.
Article 3 of the Paris deal lets countries increase their goals, but it doesn’t let them decrease those benchmarks, Boykoff said.
If Trump tries to lower the benchmarks the United States agreed to meet, it could open the door to other countries to do the same thing.
“And so with the United States not in the agreement, I think that it strengthens the conversation towards ratcheting up again,” Boykoff said.
Trump alluded to the idea of potentially negotiating "a far better deal" during his Thursday speech. He didn't say what a better deal would look like or whether it would be in addition to withdrawing or in place of it.