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In study, carbon efflux flat under Trump

By Chelsea Harvey The Washington Post

This article was published August 12, 2017 at 4:27 a.m.

Despite the Trump administration's aim to roll back environmental regulations and President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, a new study predicted that U.S. carbon emissions will remain relatively flat over the next few years.

Market forces are likely to bolster the expansion of clean energy and other emissions-cutting efforts, particularly in the electricity sector, against changes in federal policy, North Carolina State University researchers said in a study published last week in the journal Climate Policy.

Even so, the paper estimates that by 2050 a single Trump term could lead to the release of 12 billion more metric tons of carbon dioxide than would have been emitted under the Obama administration's long-term plan for cutting emissions, a detailed proposal known as the Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization released at the end of President Barack Obama's final term.

If Trump is elected to a second term, his policies would release an additional 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

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That's equivalent to more than a half year's worth of carbon emissions across the globe.

The Mid-Century Strategy aimed to bring U.S. emissions down to 80 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2050. The plan was meant to build upon the nation's pledge under the Paris climate agreement, a short-term target of cutting U.S. emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2025. The Washington Post reported in November the Obama-era strategy's long-term climate effects would be tantamount to the impact of suddenly removing all vehicles from U.S. roads.

But if emissions remain flat under the Trump administration, any subsequent administrations that want to meet the same climate goals outlined under the Obama-era strategy would have to introduce policies that cut carbon emissions at an even faster rate than the Obama plan.

"The authors make a good case for why U.S. emissions are likely to remain flat under President Trump," said Marc Hafstead, an environmental economist and research fellow at the nonprofit Resources for the Future, who was not involved with the analysis. "While the administration's policies will prevent further declines in emissions in the next four to eight years, market forces and aggressive state policies -- in California, for example -- make it equally unlikely emissions will increase in the near term."

The authors examined five sectors that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions -- electricity, land use, buildings and infrastructure, transportation, and non-carbon dioxide emissions sources such as methane -- to analyze how vulnerable they may be to changes in federal climate policies. They found that, given the outlook for U.S. coal mining, the electricity sector is likely the most stable.

Despite repeated promises from the Trump administration to revitalize the declining coal industry, the expansion of cheaper natural gas and renewables such as wind and solar is likely to prevent that from happening, the authors note.

Even in the absence of the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration's flagship effort to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector, "it's hard to imagine a big coal rebound," said Harrison Fell, an environmental economist at N.C. State and one of the new paper's authors.

With the coal industry in decline, the authors write, greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector are "unlikely to increase dramatically in the near-term, and may even continue to see small declines."

The other sectors the researchers studied may carry slightly more uncertainty, Fell said, although the analysis suggests they're also unlikely to see steep increases in emissions over the next few years.

So far, the Trump administration has not made major changes in land-use policies, for example, and researchers suggest that "it is reasonable to assume that recent trends -- modest but decreasing gains in carbon sequestration -- continue in the short-term absent federal leadership."

Trump has threatened to cut funds for federal energy efficiency programs for buildings and appliances, but those measures would need approval from Congress. The report notes that total energy consumption from buildings in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors has remained largely flat over the past decade and is unlikely to change without major federal action.

And attempts from both Congress and the Trump administration to roll back Obama-era rules aimed at reducing methane emissions have so far been unsuccessful.

A Section on 08/12/2017

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