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Trump-sized upheaval in climate movement

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25 November 2016 11:00

The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States cast a long shadow over the climate conference in Morocco earlier this month. Delegates spent a lot of time expressing hopes that President-elect Trump was not serious when he declared climate change theory to be a 'hoax' invented by the Chinese.

The president-elect seemed to yield ground on the issue this week with the vague statement that there was 'some connectivity' between human activity and climate change. 'It depends on how much,' he added.

Despite that concession, the Trump transition website describes climate policy as a 'radical political agenda' and noted climate sceptic Myron Ebell is in charge of the the Environmental Protection Authority transition.

This all adds up to a nightmare for the climate industry, but possibly an even more unexpected development is that industrial emissions have stopped growing in the past two years, largely due to changes in the Chinese economy that are not connected to any green agenda. Moreover, the US economy is set to substantially decarbonise regardless of what Trump thinks about climate change.

However, Trump does represent a very real and immediate threat for the climate industry in that his success is likely to sharply reduce the amount the US pays (and has committed to paying in the future) to help developing nations reduce emissions, as well as to support climate conferences and secretariats.

As revealed by Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project (GCP), emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and industry, including cement production, have hardly increased in three years (after growing at an average annual rate of 2.3% in the decade before). The projected total world emissions for this year (36.4 billion tonnes) will be only 0.2% above that of 2014. This means, the GCP states:

Current trajectories of fossil fuel emissions are moving away from the most carbon intensive emission scenarios used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The current trajectory is consistently with the Nationally Determined Commitments of the Paris agreement to 2030, but it is inconsistent with the long-term goal of stabilizing the climate system below 2°C above pre-industrial level.

As discussed in the annual GCP report, the recent slow down in emission growth has occurred even as the world economy grew at more than 3% annually in the last three years. This apparent decoupling of economic growth from emissions was mainly due to changes in the economies of China and the US, the two largest emitters.

The biggest change in emissions was in China, where the construction industry boom has ended and weaker global demand for steel has reduced smelting, a major source of carbon dioxide emissions. Efforts to reduce air pollution have also helped, and increased use of solar and wind energy made a small contribution. The report also notes a US contribution to this global slowdown in emissions, due to 'improvements in energy efficiency, the replacement of coal with natural gas and, to a lesser extent, renewable energy'.

A closer look at the US energy scene shows that the unlocking of vast reserves of oil, and notably gas, thanks to hydraulic fracturing has resulted in gas prices falling below well below coal. This has been helped by the country already having a network of pipelines to carry the gas. New regulations imposed by the outgoing Obama administration have also encouraged the retirement of old coal plants in favour of efficient gas plants, with substantially reduced emissions (the president used his regulatory powers to do this, rather than legislation that would have to pass through congress).

President-elect Trump made coal a centre-piece of his campaign, gaining the electoral votes in eight of the 10 coal-producing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, and he can eliminate the Obama-era regulations. But he still faces the economic reality of low gas prices, and the new plants already in place are unlikely to be torn down.

Trump is set to have more success in withdrawing from climate conferences and support for climate action. As previously noted in The Interpreter, US ratification for the Paris agreement reached late last year was by way of presidential affirmation, rather than a ratification which would require the assent of the US Senate. Once inaugurated, the new president can negate that affirmation.

It is true that it will still take the US three years to withdraw from the agreement, but the Paris climate deal does not bind individual countries to do anything beyond produce emissions targets. The US, the second biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, had pledged to decrease its emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 as part of the global effort to keep warming below two degrees celsius. However, this target is not enforceable beyond naming and shaming, and Trump has already been named and shamed a great deal without seeming to care.

The just-concluded Council Of the Parties 22 was mostly about hammering out the details of meeting those targets and how they might be monitored. Developing countries also pushed hard for contributions to a $US100 billion-a-year fund which they say is needed to meet environmental targets.

During his campaign Trump pledged to withdraw the money the US spends annually on supporting efforts to combat climate change, which he claimed would save $US100 billion over eight years. A check by Bloomberg BNA found that $US77 billion over five years to FY 2013 was spent on addressing global climate change, mostly on technology development and deployment. Trump also declared he could stop America’s $US3 billion contribution to the climate fund, although only $US500 million has been given and part of that came from private sources.

Donald Trump’s unexpected election win does not mean that emissions will continue to climb. Emissions are reponsive to changes in economies, in particular changes that occur in the gigantic Chinese economy. Major policy shifts such as the Chinese government ordering a rationalisation of smelting capacity, which it is reluctant to do, would probably have more short-term influence than agreements at international meetings.

Photo: Getty Images/Washington Post

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