The election of Donald Trump may prove a disaster for the climate and especially for climate change negotiations if he sticks to the threats made during his campaign. But it may provide the developing world – especially China – with an opportunity to take on the role of leader in the fight against climate change.
If Trump’s campaign trail promises come true then on his first day in office, the new President may rescind Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, “end the war on coal” and cut funding for renewables.
As news of Trump’s victory reached Marrakech – the city hosting the November 7-18 UN climate summit – US government delegates reportedly went into a huddle. Negotiators and observers from other countries are now pinning their hopes on Obama being able to push through at least some of the promises his government has made over the past eight years before he leaves office in January.
Overturning the Clean Power Plan may not be easy. The move would likely be challenged and the case could drag on for over a year, according to experts in Washington. For the rest of the world though, the Clean Power Plan is the part that concerns people the least, as it is mostly a domestic effort.
The biggest setback to the global fight against climate change will be if Trump actually withdraws the US from the Paris Agreement. Legally, he may find it easier to do this because the US promise to be a part of the agreement is based on an executive order by Obama. As the next president, Trump could withdraw that order. Or he may seek ratification from the Senate, knowing that a motion to enter the agreement would likely be defeated by Republican senators.
The decision by the US under George W Bush’s administration not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol set back global efforts to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by years. Governments in other developed countries were told by their industries that any action to control emissions would make them uncompetitive with the US. Meanwhile, developing countries were told by their industries that they should do nothing because the US – historically the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, and still second today after China – was doing nothing.
Now there may be a repeat, only worse
The scientific evidence is clear that global GHG emissions must peak by 2020 if the global average temperature rise is to be kept within 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is simply no time left to reopen the climate denialism debate all over again.
Secondly, the Paris Agreement will not work if rich nations fail to keep their commitment to provide poor nations with US$100 billion (678 billion yuan) a year by 2020 to help the low carbon transition and to handle the impacts of climate change. The US$100 billion figure was given by Hillary Clinton during the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, when she was Obama’s secretary of state. If Trump’s animosity towards the candidate he defeated extends to breaking this promise, the Paris Agreement will be in serious jeopardy.
Domestically, some US analysts foresee an era of lawsuits as environmental groups take the Trump administration to court over its expected failure to keep the promises made by his predecessor. To avoid this, other analysts predict that Trump will be advised to kill any moves towards a greener economy through inaction rather than action – by delaying executive orders or not making them. Rather than abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump could appoint someone to head it that would stifle it and ensure its funding is cut so that it can no longer function effectively.
Some environmentalists feel that initiatives towards greening the US economy cannot really be stopped by a Trump administration because most of the initiatives are by state governments. But that is little comfort to the rest of the world, which has to deal with the federal government.
Over the last few years, developing countries have been making relatively greater efforts than industrialised countries to control GHG emissions. China already has the largest share in the global market for key green products, such as solar photovoltaic cells and wind farm equipment.
As news of Trump’s victory came in, Yang Fuqiang, prominent Chinese climate expert, said this was time for his country to take over the global climate leadership under its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Such a sentiment would resonate more in large parts of south, south-east and central Asia if there was more trust in China’s intentions behind the OBOR initiative.
But be that as it may, if the US now fails to provide finance or technology transfers under attractive terms to developing countries to enable them to move towards a greener economy, many of them will have no choice but to look towards China.
India has a large bilateral solar energy programme with the US. Indian officials said they did not expect any change to that, but they would wait and watch for any personnel changes in the relevant departments in the US government before saying anything more.
Most American environmentalists were dismayed by the election result. Kelly Stone, a policy analyst at ActionAid, said, “Climate change is already having major impacts on the lives of millions of people in the United States and around the world. Droughts, flooding and other types of extreme weather events are becoming stronger and more frequent, and the US is not immune. This is a global crisis that President-elect Trump will have to address.”
Carroll Muffett, president of the Centre for International Environmental Law, said, “The Paris Agreement was signed and ratified not by a President, but by the United States itself. As a matter of international law, and as a matter of human survival, the nations of the world can, must, and will hold the United States to its climate commitments.”
Any attempt to revive the fossil economy in the US could also pose a risk for Trump, leading not only to a loss of international influence but also economic damage as China and emerging economies take the lead in global green growth.
Tina Johnson, policy director for US Climate Action Network, said, "President-elect Trump has the opportunity to catalyse further action on climate that sends a clear signal to investors to keep the transition to a renewable-powered economy on track. China, India, and other economic competitors are racing to be the global clean energy superpower, and the US doesn’t want to be left behind."
Even if Trump attempts to roll-back the progress made under Obama’s tenure, he will struggle against economic realities and a vibrant civil society.
Terry Tamminem, who designed California's groundbreaking climate legislation under the republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, believes that many of Trump's promises cannot be fulfilled. He said that steel is unlikely to return to Pittsburgh, for example, and a revival for coal would make no sense given that US power plants are already converting to natural gas.
Furthermore, the paralysis in Washington politics caused by the Republican dominated Congress means that action on climate change has already devolved to states, cities and business. And investors understand that the global economy must decarbonise.
Stephanie Pfeifer, CEO of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, said, “The pace and scale of change already underway in the global economy is remarkable and irreversible: for instance, renewables have already overtaken coal as a global power source, electric vehicles are the growth segment of the auto industry and jobs are being created in clean energy sectors faster than any other. Moreover, this shift is already highly visible in the US economy, where major new investment in renewables is driving significant job creation in places like Texas, the heartland of oil and gas.”