The surprising November 2016 election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States left many in the environmental community scrambling to understand the implications of a Republican executive for President Obama’s climate legacy – and, more concretely, the U.S. emissions trajectory. Over the past eight years, Republican lawmakers had met the Obama regulatory agenda with increasing hostility, attempting on multiple occasions to block, roll back, and otherwise defund his climate initiatives. With sympathetic President Trump in the White House, these efforts are expected to bear fruit – but, how juicy the fruit, how bountiful the harvest?
New analysis from Climate Advisers explores the vulnerability of some of Obama’s key climate priorities to a smorgasbord of Republican rollback tactics, including disapproval under the Congressional Review Act (already underway for the Bureau of Land Management’s methane emissions rule), court settlements, lax enforcement and new legislation, among others.
To measure the possible impact of regulatory rollbacks, we categorize existing policies into three groups: Highly Vulnerable (first to go, well-known and controversial rules), Moderately Vulnerable (disliked, but not top priority for elimination), and Vulnerable (lesser known and uncontroversial rules). Our full analysis provides the rule-by-rule breakdown.
Not surprisingly, reversal of all highly vulnerable rules and targets will substantially reduce the United States’ ability to meet its Paris commitment, with 2025 emissions just 17 percent below 2005 levels (red line, Figure 1). Accounting for all moderately vulnerable programs, 2025 emissions fall to roughly 14 percent below 2005 levels—essentially matching current levels. There is very little difference between this latter scenario and the reference case (gray line, Figure 1) because less vulnerable policies do not represent very large mitigation potential.
Figure 1: Projected Emissions under Trump Administration Relative to Targets
Note: Each line represents the midpoint of a range; the full range accounts for low and high estimates of future land sinks.
Several lessons can be gleaned from this exercise.
- First, the impact of the Trump administration is much more likely to be felt in 2025 than in 2020, given that many of the factors influencing today’s emissions trajectory (e.g., the move away from coal and adoption of renewables in the power sector) cannot be quickly reversed.
- Second, the roll back of existing programs will have a sizable impact on future emissions: the “Trump Effect” in 2025 could be as high as half a gigaton of CO2
- Finally, although the new administration will severely handicap U.S. climate action, it will not be able to reverse existing market trends that favor a low-carbon economy. At worst, U.S. emissions will remain flat through 2025 and toward 2030.
So what does this mean for the U.S. Paris target—the pledge to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025? Well, this remains an open question. Conceivably, a Democratic administration taking office in 2020 can resume the Obama administration agenda and once again promote policies that place U.S. emissions on a downward trajectory. How close a new administration’s initiatives would be able to bring the country to its Paris targets will heavily depend on whether the market headwinds blow in the same direction. Given continued and rapid deployment of renewables and efficiency improvements in our power plants, buildings, and appliances – many driven by state-level mandates and incentives – renewed climate action at the federal level could bring about steeper emissions reductions than those that were possible during Obama’s presidency.
There’s no denying that the path to 2025 has gotten demonstrably more foggy and difficult to navigate. Can an expert guide get us to the end goal? Sure. But they would have to avoid a lot of large rotting fruit.