Will Donald Trump's climate change views affect other nations' global warming action?

by Rebecca Macfie / 25 November, 2016
Photo/Getty Images

A year ago, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief: an all-nations accord had been reached in Paris, marking a turning point in a tortuous 25-year battle to confront catastrophic climate change.

Barely a month ago, that agreement entered into force, having been ratified by 109 counties, including the US. And then came president-elect Donald Trump.

The US, which for the past two years has worked hand in glove with China to steer the global community towards a plan to wean the world off fossil fuels, will be led by a man who claimed on the campaign trail that climate change was a hoax invented by China, promised to “cancel” the Paris deal and who has appointed a prominent climate-change denier to lead transition plans at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Is the Trump presidency a calamity for the climate or merely a serious setback?

Frank Jotzo, director of the centre for climate economics and policy at Australian National University, argues the latter. For starters, the US is a party to the Paris deal and can’t just walk away from it. There’s a four-year process of withdrawal, and therefore it can’t happen within a single term of office – although it’s been speculated that Trump could shortcut that process by withdrawing immediately from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the underlying agreement that made the Paris deal possible. However, Trump appeared this week to back off on his pre-election claims, telling the New York Times he had an “open mind” on abandoning the Paris accord.

Jotzo says whatever legal approach Trump takes, his administration could simply ignore the carbon-reduction pledge made by the US under the Paris deal, unwind the Obama Administration’s domestic clean-energy reforms and do nothing to cut emissions. That would make it easier for other countries to backslide on their climate actions.

Given that the combined pledges of all countries under the Paris deal are not enough to hold global temperature increases to two degrees, such inaction by the world’s second-largest emitter and copy-cat countries would be cause for deep pessimism.

This week Trump promised to cancel “job-killing” restrictions on the likes of shale energy and “clean coal”. But Jotzo says momentum away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy has been building strongly and will continue in spite of the Trump effect. In particular, China is highly unlikely to back away from action on climate change, largely because it has powerful domestic reasons for shifting to clean energy.

“The most important reason to cut back on coal is domestic air pollution in cities, which is … recognised as a problem for health and ultimately for the economy. That in itself is a strong motivation for cleaning up the energy sector.”

Climate economist Frank Jotzo.

Major player

China also wants to reduce dependence on the international trade in fossil fuels and sees huge economic advantage in taking a leadership role in renewable-energy technology.

“Many countries have identified clean energy as the ‘next big thing’ in global industrial systems, and China intends to be a major player, and not leave the field to the US and Japan.” It could even be to China’s advantage if Trump moves to aggressively undo Obama’s clean-energy push, says Jotzo.

Although the Trump election in some ways parallels the climate setback that followed the election of George W Bush in 2000 – and the subsequent US refusal to ratify the Kyoto climate deal – Jotzo says the clean-energy market is very different today.

In October, the International Energy Agency reported that renewables – mostly wind and solar – overtook coal last year to become the largest source of new electricity capacity around the world. Half a million solar panels were installed every day last year, and in China, which accounted for about half the new wind power and 40% of all renewable electricity increases, an average of two wind turbines were being installed every hour. Executive director Fatih Birol said the world was seeing a “transformation of global power markets led by renewables”.

Jotzo says clean-energy technology, including the drive towards electric vehicles and battery storage, is now seen as commercially attractive and viable, independent of international climate politics. “The overall momentum towards a low-carbon transition is much greater than any negative effect of a Trump presidency because of the tremendous advance in technology, and the idea of low-carbon technology is now firmly lodged in the business community.”

“Playing dead”

Emma Herd, Sydney-based chief executive of the Investor Group on Climate Change, which represents investors with more than $1 trillion in assets interested in the effect of climate change, thinks it’s unlikely Trump will cause an “unravelling” of the Paris agreement. Even if the US is “at best, playing dead” on climate policy in the next few years, the broader momentum to a low-carbon future will continue.

“There is a significant amount of activity in civil society, in local and state government and – probably most significantly from my perspective – from the business and investor community. That will continue.”

She sees China continuing to be a source of clean-energy development, alongside other Asian nations. Although China and the US have acted in partnership in climate negotiations for the past two years, “China always does what it thinks is best for China, and it has a number of bilateral agreements in place with countries around climate-related activity. And in its domestic policy settings, it is focused strongly on reducing emissions and local pollution.

“If anything, [China’s] role in terms of its soft power influence in climate change negotiations is probably now heightened.”

And she says the role of state-led climate action in the US should not be underestimated. In California, for instance, integrated carbon, water and biodiversity policy is being rolled out, while the “race for scale-up and commercial leadership from the likes of Silicon Valley clean-tech collaborations will not be put on hold during the Trump presidency”.

“The Teslas of the world are not going to wait another four years to continue pushing their solar roof tiles, their electric vehicles and battery storage competitive advantage. They will just find new markets to sell their products.”

Climate change and reliance on fossil fuels are increasingly seen as business and investment risks that call for accurate disclosure in the interests of global financial stability. A major development in this respect will be the upcoming report of the global Taskforce on Climate Related Financial Disclosure, set up to design a regime for voluntary financial disclosures of climate-related risks to inform lenders, insurers and investors.

Power vacuum

Green MP Kennedy Graham, speaking from the Marrakesh climate conference last month, said if Trump bailed out of the underpinning UNFCCC, it would leave a power vacuum that other countries would seek to fill. “If anything, you would say that’s an opportunity for China to demonstrate No 1 leadership.”

Although the Paris deal was a breakthrough, it still relies on countries hugely increasing their carbon-reduction targets over coming years to hold temperature increase to under 2°C. Trump’s election means the remaining 196 countries out of the 197 that are party to the deal “have to up their ambition. That problem was already there, and this just makes it harder … But conceivably only for four years.”

Graham expects enormous debate in the US over climate issues, including an increase in civil protest and climate-related litigation. But climate activism is now a “global social and political movement” that is more long-lived than electoral cycles. The business sector was also displaying a “new-found commitment to emission reductions”.

“The best thing for the UN leadership is to challenge the Trump leadership to have a genuine one-on-one dialogue about [the evidence], because that carries the battle to [the Trump Administration], as opposed to turning away with your tail between your legs.”

This article was first published in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Zealander Listener.

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