President Trump: Set-back or turning point for climate change?

The election of Donald Trump is bad news for anyone who cares about climate change. How bad it really is will depend on whether this is a hiccup or more permanent change in US policy.

Donald Trump's victory gives a pretty gloomy outlook for both US and international climate policy over the next four years.
Donald Trump’s victory gives a pretty gloomy outlook for both US and international climate policy over the next four years.

The hard facts after the US election are that we will have a climate denier as US President and that the Republicans will have a majority in Congress at least for the next two years. The list of things that can go wrong under the Trump administration is long. Here are a few of the most obvious points.

  • Although it’s impossible for the US to formally pull out of the Paris Agreement the next four years, the Trump administration could simply disregard any US commitment under the deal. That would for all practical purposes be exactly the same.
  • The further negotiations under the Paris Agreement, i.e. to develop the more specific rulebook and to look at how ambition can be increased over time, might be stalled without a constructive US participation.
  • Key pieces of the domestic US climate policy like the Clean Power Plan can easily be torn apart either by Congress legislation, in the Supreme Court or by underfunding the Environment Protection Agency.
  • With support from Congress, Trump can roll back support for renewable energy, R&D funding for clean technologies and emission standards in the transport sector.
  • And without meaningful action in the US it will be more difficult for other countries to increase their ambitions under the Paris Agreement. Worst case, the “ratchet mechanism” to increase ambition over time could turn into a downward spiral where several countries are walking away from their initial pledges.

This gives a pretty gloomy outlook for both US and international climate policy over the next four years. Still, there are a couple of things that suggest doomsday might not be upon us just yet.

Most importantly, the key trends that are driving down emissions in the energy sector are now to a large extent market driven. Not even Trump can stop the falling cost of renewable technologies like wind and solar, and they will continue to outperform coal and gas in an increasing number of energy markets. Nor can he make coal more competitive against shale gas domestically without wasting public money. Likewise, electric vehicles will likely be the best and cheapest cars on the market within the next decade. It’s true that the tipping point might be pushed out in time without carbon pricing or support schemes in place, but the transformation of the energy and transport sector cannot be regulated away.

Moreover, taking a slightly cynical view of the Paris Agreement it can be argued that the next four years were never going to be the most important ones anyway. Yes, there is important work to be done to develop the rulebook on the transparency regime, the cooperation under Article 6 and a number of other issues. And yes, there will be an informal stocktake in 2018, but no one really expected the major emitters to revise their pledges at this point in time anyway. So maybe the talks will go into a light hibernation until 2020, potentially with some progress on the technical elements of the deal as a best case scenario, while the more important question is perhaps what happens at the next US election. With a democratic comeback (or a different Republican policy) in 2020 it might still be time to save US action on climate change and the Paris Agreement before the first global stocktake takes place in 2023.

This is obviously clutching at straws, but what else can you do on a day like this? The efforts on climate change might be a key legacy of the Obama administration. The close cooperation with China which paved the way for the Paris Agreement and the recent climate deals on aviation under ICAO and on HFCs under the Montreal Protocol is a textbook example of clever diplomacy by Obama and his team. Those gains might be wiped out by Trump, but domestic and international efforts to deal with climate change were always going to be long and painful political processes. It will still take some years before we know whether the election of Trump is a temporary set-back or whether this was the game-changer that forever moved the world far away from the two degree target.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Thomson Reuters.