People, planet, and the path ahead
Participants at the COP22 climate conference stage a public show of support for climate negotiations and the 2015 Paris agreement, on the last full day of the conference, in Marrakech, Morocco, on Nov. 18.
David Keyton/AP | Caption

What Trump really means for global progress on climate change

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Here's why the US election outcome became the worried focus of climate diplomats gathered in Morocco. And here's why they're not giving up on making headway against greenhouse emissions.

Maybe it just won’t be that bad.

That was the refrain along the canopied walkway that runs through the makeshift tent village here at the United Nations climate conference. Yes, United States president-elect Donald Trump is threatening to pull the world’s second-largest emitter out of a major international deal to ratchet down greenhouse gases. But, no, it will not scuttle progress.

No doubt, Mr. Trump’s election victory still hung over this conference as it concluded in the early morning hours Saturday. It’s impossible to know what more might have been accomplished here but, as expected, events ended with a proclamation to come back next year to continue constructing the rules that will underpin the international climate regime.

What’s certain is that change is coming at the top. The US under President Obama is a leader on climate. The outgoing president’s bilateral negotiation to help bring a long-reluctant China into the global climate order in 2014 was seen as the tipping point for reaching the global agreement that had eluded nations for decades until last year in Paris.

Under Trump, the US role is all but certain to shrink. One risk has to do with America’s own emissions, and a wider fear is that a US pullback could also pull other countries out of the deal. But leaders here sounded notes of hope about keeping Trump engaged.

“We know that Mr. Trump is very pragmatic and also we know the entire population of the United States is already committed,” said Salaheddine Mezouar, president of the Conference of Parties, as the UN conference is known, said in a Friday press conference.

This week showed that other countries are ready to step up. China – historically a climate laggard that Republicans for years used as a foil to prevent US climate cooperation – is now the de facto international leader. Germany also is assuming a bigger role, and Obama’s visit to Berlin and meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday sought to underscore her prominence.

Canada and Mexico released plans for significantly slashing carbon emissions by 2050 this week, along with Germany. America’s neighbors floated their plans in a joint event with the US, whose own ambitious targets are now in jeopardy under Trump. Dozens of other nations pledged a rapid push for 100-percent renewable power.

“I doubt that a Trump presidency will kill the Paris process – too many other countries are too invested in its success. But it will shift the intellectual and political leadership of the process from the United States to other countries, most notably China,” David Victor, co-chair of the energy and climate initiative at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, wrote Thursday.

Clearly, Trump presents a threat to climate policies. Experts already are preparing for the end to the Clean Power Plan, an Obama regulation (tied up in the federal courts) that would limit power plant emissions. In a scenario where the Supreme Court upholds that regulation, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton might have relied on the law under which it was crafted to slap restrictions on oil refineries, cement-makers, and other industries. All signs say that Trump won’t.

Backward steps?

All of that represents a possible backsliding on US emissions. So too do the threats of unraveling myriad environmental regulations and gutting spending for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Adding one or more conservative justices to the Supreme Court could potentially result in long-lasting decisions that diminish climate action. The federal government, chock full of Trump appointees, could simply resist enforcing environmental policies.

Litigation from environmental groups against agencies that fail to hold emitters accountable to the law is sure to follow. Still, those cases could remain in court for years, allowing emissions to rise in the interim.

In some policy arenas, Trump appears to be moderating his positions since winning the election. But the signs coming out of his transition team – EPA transition chief Myron Ebell is skeptical of the role humans play in warming the planet – suggest the Paris agreement, Clean Power Plan, and EPA regulations won’t be part of that trend. Many of his policy ideas have been either formal or informal planks of the Republican Party platform for several years now.

There’s no understating how drastic a reversal all those actions would be. If stripped, restoring EPA funding and environmental safeguards would prove uphill battles given the strong projected hold Republicans have on the House for the next few elections. Supreme Court justice terms are for life. And all the while, any greenhouse gases that go into the air in the short term stay up there for the long term, warming the planet in what most scientists predict would be a deepening feedback loop.

“What we do right now, today, matters. If we don’t go far enough, if we don’t go fast enough, the damage we inflict will take centuries to undo if they can be undone at all,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech here Wednesday. “We don’t get a second chance.”

The energy reality

But here’s what won’t change: Despite Trump’s campaign pledges to revive coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel source in the US electricity mix, simply repealing regulations isn’t enough for a massive rebound.

Giant coal companies such as Arch, Peabody, and Alpha have filed for bankruptcy. Inexpensive natural gas is eating coal’s lunch, which may continue all through Trump’s first term. Subsidies for wind and solar, energy sources that are increasingly cost-competitive regardless of incentives, will last about as long under legislation passed last year – unless Congress moves to kill them outright (which could be difficult).

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a leader of the charge against the so-called “War on Coal,” acknowledged these broader trends facing coal at a Louisville event this week.

“We are going to be presenting to the president a variety of options that could end this assault," McConnell said, according to USA Today. "Whether that immediately brings business back, that's hard to tell because this is a private sector activity."

Coal competes with natural gas in the electricity sector, and natural gas prices are projected to remain cheap for some time. The fuel has half the carbon content as coal, though environmental groups note that methane emissions that leak from hydraulic fracturing lessen natural gas’ overall climate appeal. But, to this point, the hydraulic fracturing boom that unleashed loads of natural gas has driven a good deal of US emissions reductions – the federal US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said that switching from coal to natural gas in the electricity sector last year accounted for most of the 12 percent drop in total energy-related emissions relative to 2005 levels.

Some policies Trump is advocating, like increasing drilling access on federal lands, might even expand natural gas production and further crimp coal.

“President-elect Trump could face some difficulty reviving the US coal industry since he has also promised to increase domestic natural gas production. In addition to federal regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions, the coal industry has been weighed down by competition from low-cost natural gas, which has allowed the nation's utilities an affordable way to transition away from coal,” S&P Global Market Intelligence said in a memo.

Relaxing regulations may help coal at the margins, making some suppliers more competitive with natural gas. Some coal-fired power plants might stick around a while longer, which would make carbon cutting more stubborn. But mechanization of the coal industry has left fewer jobs for workers. Most of the easy-to-mine seams have already been excavated, making what’s left more expensive to haul out of the earth.

Hurdles ahead

The risk to climate, of course, is that even standing still isn’t progress. Reaching the US 2025 emissions goal of a 26 to 28 percent reduction below 2005 levels already was going to be extremely challenging under any president. The UN Environmental Program said all countries have to pick up the pace regardless, as commitments made in Paris would still allow temperatures to rise up to 3.4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100 – a far cry from the pact’s 2-degree goal.

“Make no mistake – government leadership is absolutely essential,” Secretary Kerry said.

Some experts contend Trump could actually present some opportunities for greenhouse-gas progress through emission-free nuclear power and carbon capture and storage technology for power plants, which involves capturing emissions and pumping them underground. Both technologies are capital intensive and generally not economical to build in the US without subsidies, but they’re favored by Republicans.

Environmental groups and most of the Democratic Party have preferred sending dollars to wind and solar, which they say have fewer potential negative knock-on effects and rely on free fuel – sunshine and breezes – once they're built. They’re concerned about what to do with nuclear waste, the potential for power-station meltdowns, and nuclear weapons proliferation. On carbon capture, they worry about extending a lifeline to fossil fuels and have questions about how to safely inject emissions into the ground.

While Trump on the campaign trail viewed wind and solar power dismissively, trends are working in favor of those energy sources. Even in a world without the Clean Power Plan, some states and utilities might green their electricity generation.

Many states that weren’t even actively attempting to comply with the rule were already meeting their targets. That’s partly due to renewable electricity mandates in more than half of US states, as well as falling renewable energy costs and the embrace of cheap natural gas.

Other regulations have pushed utilities to shut coal plants down – coal retirements accounted for more than 80 percent of the 18 gigawatts of power shuttered last year, according to the EIA. On top of all that, US utilities aren’t seeking to build new coal-fired power plants, a pattern likely to remain even with Trump.

The financial outlook for renewable energy also is growing more favorable by the day. It’s now possible to build new photovoltaic solar power system for $30 per megawatt-hour, said Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Her firm expects wind and solar to attract three-fifths of the $11.4 trillion of global energy investment through the next 25 years, with costs falling for wind by 41 percent and solar by 60 percent during that period.

Fiscal conservatives in Congress may target tax incentives that make those power sources cheaper in the US, and which are expected to cost $14.5 billion and $9.3 billion, respectively, through 2025. But some red-state lawmakers support wind and solar, and Congress last year approved legislation that would sunset the incentives, so there’s at least relative certainty that they will end in the near future.

“It could be difficult [to end the incentives] because many in the House and Senate have constituencies that benefit from these incentives. So, the politics of the matter are larger than just Trump,” Kenneth Medlock, a fellow in energy and resource economics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said in an email.

Businesses, which were front and center at the time of the failed 2009 Copenhagen talks, will now retake the climate stage spotlight in the US. Under Trump, they might face little federal pressure to curb emissions. But the international community knows that. It has a history of imploring the private sector to step up, knowing full well that US-based companies might not find that push from government.

“There’s a real business case for a revolution, and maybe we should tell that to Mr. Trump, too,” Sharon Dijksma, environment minister for the Netherlands, said at an event this week.

Corporate movers

Claims of private-sector progress are hard to verify, but many larger companies are at least planning for a future in which countries’ emissions policies make it costlier to pollute. Sixty percent of Fortune 100 firms already have a climate or renewable energy plan, according to Bloomberg.

“Implementing the Paris Climate Agreement will enable and encourage businesses and investors to turn the billions of dollars in existing low-carbon investments into the trillions of dollars the world needs to bring clean energy prosperity to all,” said a Wednesday letter from the businesses, which DuPont, Nike, and Kellogg Co. “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk.”

"As of this week, 200 companies, representing $4.8 trillion in market value, have put forward emissions targets in line with science, among them Wal-Mart, Mars Inc., and Sony," Paula Caballero, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute, said in a statement.

A trade element also exists. If other countries are gearing their societies for a lower-carbon future, the marketplace may well put a higher emphasis on climate-friendly products. The possibility of imposing carbon taxes on US imports at the border also remains, though major economies like China and the European Union have downplayed that idea.

Liu Zhenmin, China’s top climate negotiator, said that carbon should be taken into account in trade deals, but that it shouldn’t pose an obstacle to free commerce. Instead, he said climate change considerations could help “facilitate” trade.

“What we need to do is not suspend the trade, but [use it] to improve,” he said in a press conference.

Trump, though, was no friend to the idea of free trade on the campaign trail. The same is true of climate change.

There were many moral pleas at this conference thrown in Trump’s direction. So when asked whether he had a message to deliver to Trump, Mezouar, the conference president, said the reason for adhering to the Paris agreement is to ensure “what our planet is going to be tomorrow.”

With Trump in the White House, Mezouar’s words may read as much as a question as a statement.

This story was supported by a fellowship through International Reporting Project.