One of the key differences between Clinton and Trump was their stances on climate change. Clinton had a strong plan to continue the USA’s leadership position, and Trump disputes its existence. However, a Trump presidency isn’t a disaster for climate action globally or in the US. In fact, he might actually reduce US emissions, however unintentionally.
There are multiple reasons for this, but it comes down to inertia and isolationism. International and internal US agreements are hard to unwind, often bipartisan, and won’t be focus areas. The economics of wind and solar are transforming generation globally. Electric vehicles have multiple value propositions besides climate change. The rest of the world and especially China aren’t going to stop, they’ll just pull ahead of the USA. And a military that stays home doesn’t burn nearly as much diesel and aviation fuel. There’s no reason to cheer for a Trump presidency if you care about the climate and the global economic impacts of climate change, but there’s less reason for gloom than most would think.
Here are the areas to pay attention to and how to think of them:
COP21 Was Ratified Early
Due to the looming spectre of a Trump presidency, COP21 was ratified by signatory states on an accelerated schedule. It reached that milestone months early, before the election. The world is moving on climate change regardless of the USA and in good part because of the work Obama and his team did. The US will not be a leading force, but Trump has limited political capital and a long list of things he dislikes more than COP21. Not doing much is different than actively fighting against it.
7 Years of Tax Stability for Wind & Solar
One of the less celebrated events of the end of 2015 was a US deal reached to remove the embargo on US oil exports in return for a 5 year declining Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy and a 7 year declining Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar. That deal is pretty stable because a lot of Republican states have the best wind and solar resources, have very large numbers of workers in renewable energy and get reasonable chunks of tax revenue from the industry. It’s unlikely to be anyone’s priority to revoke that especially as it’s already going away in reasonable time periods. There’s little political value in axing the PTC and ITC.
Wind & Solar Are Already Cheap & Getting Cheaper
These forms of renewable energy reached their tipping point in the past couple of years. Now they are so competitive that they are impossible to stop. This is a global phenomenon, but the USA is just part of the world. Would there have been more wind and solar under a Clinton administration? Sure, but that would have been an acceleration of the inevitable. Trump’s presidency may slow this a little, but that’s not the end of the world.
Electric Vehicles Have Reached the Tipping Point Too
Electric cars are the most desirable ones globally. Chevy introduced the Bolt, which is so good that it was compared favourably to a base feature Tesla Model S, which means it’s insanely far ahead of most of the cars in its actual class. Huge on the inside, small on the outside, very peppy, good handling due to its low centre of gravity, and a reasonable price. The Tesla Model 3 will be better and cheaper when it comes out next year, but these are very desirable vehicles.
Electric buses are being shipped everywhere right now. They are being driven from Sydney to Melbourne, and LA to Vegas and back, on a single charge. They’ve arrived. Musk and others are aiming for electric utility and freight trucks. Electric garbage trucks exist for sale now. Electric scooters and motorcycles continue to get better. Zero Motorcycles unveiled its 2017 lineup, and as expected, the bikes have gotten both better in multiple dimensions while simultaneously getting cheaper. Their top-of-the-line bikes have excellent components from top-of-the-line providers of brakes, shocks, and the like, and have just over 200 miles of range in the city. That’s an electric motorcycle. With 200 miles of range.
Tesla might be leading, but it’s helped create a movement, as have other companies. And there are drivers which aren’t going away. California and Europe are still huge markets for vehicles. Their emissions standards are ramping up again over the next few years, and Trump has nothing he can or will likely do about that. The diesel emissions scandal has engulfed every global car manufacturer that was trying to build clean diesels and now they are all turning to electric and ditching the diesels.
Hybrids are declining in terms of sales and pure electric vehicles are increasing.
The USA’s Emissions are Declining for Systemic Reasons
US emissions are still among the highest per capita in the world, but they peaked and are declining. Lots of reasons for that, but LEDs, electric cars, decarbonization of the grid, energy efficiency programs, automation of manufacturing, miniaturization and consolidation of electronics, and the like have all been dropping developed nation emissions, and the US is in that game. That’s going to continue regardless of the Trump presidency. Will emissions per capita be higher at the end of the Trump administration than at the end of a Clinton administration? Sure, but they’ll very probably still be lower than they are now. Trump doesn’t control much of that at all.
The Rest of the World is Shifting Rapidly…
I remember in 2013 when my US wind energy friends and acquaintances were feeling terrible because the PTC hadn’t been renewed. The industry was in a funk. But with my globetrotting perspective, I could see that the US was a downward blip on an upward global trajectory. Industries ebb and flow across geographic distances, and when it’s depressed in one place it goes up in another.
… China especially
A lot of naysayers spout the rhetoric that the US shouldn’t do anything because China and India won’t. But China reached peak coal a couple of years ago, is shutting down old coal plants rapidly, is cancelling construction of previously approved plants and is running a lot of plants at low capacity factors. In the meantime, it’s pumping in more wind, solar, and nuclear power than any other country in the world. It commissioned 45 GW of wind and solar capacity in 2015 alone, out of the global total of 145 GW. And China has the most aggressive incentives for electric vehicles in the world, with intent to shift cars, buses, and trucks rapidly to clean power trains. They have more battery electric buses than the rest of the world combined, as one key metric, and that number skyrocketed in 2015.
There are a handful of reasons why China is doing this, but let’s be clear, climate change is just one of them and probably not the dominant one.
- Air pollution is a huge problem for China’s government because it rules at the will of the people just as every governing system does. Wind, solar, and nuclear energy emit no carbon, sure, but they emit no particulate or chemical pollution either.
- China is intentionally pursuing global manufacturing leadership in wind energy, solar energy, and electric vehicles. It sees these areas as massive growth opportunities and intends to dominate the sectors if at all possible. It wants to maintain China’s enviable balance of trade.
- Climate change is important to China. The Pearl River Delta is the largest megacity in the world with 48 million inhabitants last time I looked at the numbers. Guanzhou and several other cities are on a broad plain by the ocean. Sea level rise threatens this major economic driver for China. There are economic incentives to do something about climate change.
Personally, I think China will look at a Trump presidency with its anti-trade agenda, isolationist stance, and looming diplomatic failures as an opportunity. It’ll grow its trade alliances, grow its influence, get into more markets, and become more influential. Clinton would have been much better at maintaining a competitive America with China, so China’s ascendance is a bit easier for the next few years.
The US Defence Industry Gets It, Regardless of What Trump Thinks
By many counts, the US military is the single largest emitter of CO2 in the world. And the defence industry accepts that climate change is a global threat to the security of US interests. It is working hard and has been for a long time to get more-efficient, lower -emission vehicles baked into its forces. It is working on getting clean power into its energy flows. This is in part to eliminate supply chains for diesel and in part because it knows that it will end up in ugly parts of the world solving problems caused by climate change.
Trump Might Accidentally Decrease Global Emissions
This isn’t to be wished for, but an isolationist, trade-hostile USA could be a drag on the global economy. While emissions have decoupled from GDP growth over the past several years, that doesn’t mean that emissions aren’t strongly correlated to global GDP. If the world’s economy falters, less coal, oil, and gas are burned. This is the wrong way to solve the problem, but don’t rule it out.
Additionally, if Trump does avoid intervening militarily, the US military will sit at home and not burn as much diesel shifting soldiers around, and their emissions will go down.
Trump Won’t Help, but He Won’t Hurt as Much as You Might Think
We don’t have a climate change realist in Trump. But the societal tide is rising, and Trump really doesn’t have much he can do about it. And there’s little obvious value for him in playing King Canute and shouting loudly at the tide to tell it to stop coming in.
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