Trump’s prioritisation of domestic dirty industries will fail

Structural and market trends have made US coal uncompetitive. This won’t change

The dome of the US Capitol is seen behind the smokestacks of the only coal-burning power plant in Washington, DC. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

The dome of the US Capitol is seen behind the smokestacks of the only coal-burning power plant in Washington, DC. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

 

After months of keeping the world guessing, Donald Trump has finally announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

His decision is not only bad politics, it is bad economics. The world is moving away from fossil fuels. The cost of key clean technologies, including solar energy and battery storage, has plummeted in recent years. While the transition won’t happen overnight, a pathway to a low-carbon future is now clearly in sight. Countries, companies and communities can either lead this transformation or be left behind.

The onus now falls on Europe, China and India to show leadership in the response to climate change in the face of Trump’s short-sighted prioritisation of domestic dirty industries. Together they can lead the transition to a low-carbon future.

Trump's order started the process of unwinding Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a policy that sought to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants

Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement is hardly a surprise. His appointments to key positions – former Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state, and Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA (an agency Pruitt sued 14 times) – were an early indication of his intentions.

In March Trump signed an executive order seeking to dismantle much of Obama’s climate legacy. This order started the process of unwinding Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a policy that sought to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants. But it is unlikely to resuscitate the US’s flagging coal industry. Broader structural and market forces have made US coal uncompetitive, trends that are unlikely to be reversed.

Unreliable US

By pulling out of Paris, the US joins the illustrious company of Syria and Nicaragua as countries that have rejected the global pact, agreed by 195 countries in December 2015. Trump has already faced strong criticism internationally, and his decision on Paris will reduce the US’s standing around the world further.

It will reinforce the view, captured by Angela Merkel’s comments after the G7 leaders’ summit last weekend, of the US as an unreliable global partner.

This isn’t the first time the world has faced an American president opposed to global climate co-operation. In March 2001, then president George W Bush announced he was pulling the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, a predecessor climate pact to the Paris Agreement.

Back then, the European response was swift and united. The EU pledged to forge ahead with Kyoto despite US withdrawal and, to the surprise of many observers, succeeded in bringing the protocol into force.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the context is very different. For a start, the US is no longer the world’s largest carbon emitter. In fact the US share of global carbon emissions has declined from 22 per cent in 2001 to 14 per cent in 2015 – still significant but not as central as it was when Bush withdrew from Kyoto.

The EU has faced a series of internal challenges, from the euro-zone crisis to Brexit. These are challenging times for European climate leadership. But Europe is no longer alone. In fact one of the most encouraging developments has been the emergence of new springs of action on climate change around the world.

While in 2001 it fell to the EU to maintain global momentum, today the rest of the world is forging ahead with clean-energy investment, driving down the cost of new technologies.

The new paths taken by China and India are particularly encouraging. China, long criticised for the environmental damage caused by decades of rapid economic growth, is also taking steps to move decisively towards a lower-carbon – though not yet a low-carbon – economy. In fact China is today by far the largest investor globally in clean energy.

India, meanwhile, is also taking climate change and broader sustainability concerns more seriously and has set incredibly ambitious targets for deployment of renewable energy. India also faces huge challenges in poverty eradication and development, with 249 million Indian citizens still lacking access to electricity. Eliminating poverty while staying within safe ecological thresholds will be a critical challenge for India, in particular, over the coming decades.

Time against us

Europe, China and India can work together to shape the contours of a new low-carbon global economy. This week’s EU-China summit in Brussels, which pledged a new alliance to lead a clean-energy transition, is a very encouraging first step.

There is both a moral obligation and a huge opportunity to become a low-carbon economy of the future

Individually, Europe, China and India need to maintain their commitment to climate action. Collectively they can share best practices and deepen co-operation to drive down the costs of clean energy further. More than ever, the EU, China and India, as three of the world’s four biggest greenhouse gas emitters, must stand up for global climate co-operation.

In Ireland we need to play our part in responding to climate change much more than we have done to date. There is both a moral obligation and a huge opportunity to become a low-carbon economy of the future.

Time is not on our side. The scale of the decarbonisation challenge is daunting. According to the United Nations, countries around the world need to cut a further 25 per cent from predicted 2030 greenhouse gas emissions levels in order to limit global warming to two degrees, a key threshold to avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change.

Trump’s extreme short-sightedness is both a challenge and an opportunity. Europe, China and India now have a chance to lead the rest of the world in low-carbon transition.

  • Diarmuid Torney is a lecturer in the school of law and government at Dublin City University
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