The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is bad for the global environment. He has stated that he won’t take the necessary steps to achieve the Paris Agreement pledges of reducing emissions.
In a recent editorial, Paul Krugman captures the mood of Americans who are in favor of climate action.
Climate change is something that I am particularly concerned about. We were at an important point. We had just reached a global accord on emissions, and we had a clear path to move America towards a greater reliance on solar energy. It will likely fall apart now, and the damage could be irreversible.
Bad news does not always mean fatal. It is less likely than many think that global efforts to cut emissions will “fall apart.” Here are a few reasons.
China keeps the course.
Consider the motivations of China to continue with its emissions reductions.
China has strong incentives to reduce coal usage due to local pollution. Anyone who has visited China recently will confirm that the air quality in many large cities is abject. This poses a serious economic and political threat. China will likely make significant efforts to switch to technologies that emit less greenhouse gases over the next decade, regardless of whether it cares about global emissions.
The Chinese are concerned about the emissions. The Chinese know that the previous American administration did not create global warming, as Donald Trump famously said, and they’ve confirmed this.
The Chinese leadership is right to see global warming as a threat, given that nearly 1.4 billion people are crammed in a relatively small space.
Chinese companies have invested heavily in technologies that produce low emissions, including wind and nuclear energy. The Chinese are also investing in low-emission energy technologies because they want to be world leaders when it comes to production and service. These technologies will be a major part of the global energy mix around the middle of the Century.
China wants to be a global power. Trump’s administration, by reneging upon US commitments in Paris, will give China a chance to take the lead on the most important issue of the 21st Century.
A strategically savvy China will accept the offer. The leadership will likely make remarks about the unreliability and fickleness of democracy in general, as well as the United States’ inability to solve long-term structural problems.
America can still act.
We should also remember that American democracy is a very robust system. It has existed for over 200 years. The federal government, under a Trump presidency, will be at least unhelpful when it comes to reducing emissions. However, the states, counties, and cities can still do a lot to help reduce emissions.
The West coast, New England, and a large swath of mid-Atlantic states have been actively taking steps to reduce emissions. Due to their economic importance, these efforts often spread to other states and even the entire nation.
It is important to not underestimate the role that cities can play, as they are epicenters for power consumption, and have a population that takes climate changes seriously. Fort Collins, Colorado, has a Climate Action Plan. The plan calls on emissions to drop to 80% of 2005 levels by 2030, and to carbon neutrality around 2050. About half of the reductions will come from electricity delivery and supply with low emissions until 2030.
Due to rapid technological advances in clean energy technologies (solar and wind), combined with rapid advances of systems integration methods for dealing with the inherent variability of renewable energy sources, there is a greater chance that ambitious plans can be realized.
In large-scale, open energy auctions, clean energy systems regularly outperform fossil energy systems. In a book that will be published soon, my co-authors and myself point out how this competitiveness makes transitions to clean energy easier.
Investors are responding. For the first time, 2014 saw more renewable energy capacity added than fossil fuel capacity. In 2015, global investment in renewable energy capacity was US$265.8 Billion, slightly more than the US$130 Billion allocated to new coal and natural gas generation.
The private sector is well-incentivised by these investments to innovate in the clean energy area.
The expected cuts in funding for publicly-funded centres of innovation in energy, like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), will more likely set back long-term ambitions of American firms seeking to secure their position on a vast global market, than slow down the pace of innovation worldwide.
Private investment will continue. Public investments in innovation abroad are likely to benefit companies outside of the United States first.
The ball can continue to roll around the world
The stated intentions of the incoming Trump administration on global warming is terrible. They are not fatal yet, but they could be. China is more motivated than many people realise to keep its commitments on emissions.
Other levels of government can still take action to reduce emissions.
The very positive technology dynamics of the last decade are likely to continue.
This, along with the solid commitments of other major economies to reduce emissions, such as the European Union or Japan, suggests that the global movement towards limiting emissions may not collapse. The world could instead show how isolated the Trump administration really is when it comes to tackling climate change.