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Dipa Patel

March 16th, 2017

Global Climate Action Amid Trump: Challenges…But Also Measured Optimism


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Dipa Patel

March 16th, 2017

Global Climate Action Amid Trump: Challenges…But Also Measured Optimism


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In a time of uncertainty, Professor Kathryn Hochstetler gives us an insight into what global environmental governance could look like with the United States under the Trump presidency. Rather surprisingly, it may not be all that bad…

On his first day in office, US President Donald Trump had all references to climate change removed from the White House website. Members of the incoming administration are giving mixed signals about whether the US will formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate action, but it appears likely. Even if the US does not withdraw, we can expect a much lower level of involvement from the new US administration in global climate change efforts. It is quite likely, for example, that the Trump administration will not pay the final $2 billion of the $3 billion commitment that the Obama administration made to the Green Climate Fund.

There are also serious questions regarding the future of EU leadership in global climate action, given the challenges resulting from the refugee crisis, the ongoing economic and debt woes that saddle the Eurozone, the Brexit distractions, and a spate of upcoming elections in key EU nations.

These developments were already anticipated by the delegates who were meeting in Marrakech last November during the US election. Knocked aback by the victory of Trump, they needed a day or two to pull themselves together in order to return to negotiating the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The government representatives offered their positive spin to each other, and to the civil society and INGO advocates who gathered around the summit. However, the gravity of shifts stemming from the aforementioned and forthcoming changes in the United States and Europe warrants more than the damage control talking points that were offered to the media. The situation demands a serious strategic rethink about “what is next” for global climate change action – what is plausible, what is do-able, what groundwork or progress can be built upon, and whether there are any reasons for measured or cautious optimism. With the outlook for US national action on climate change appearing so bleak for the next four years, what else is going on? Are there other developments that we should be tracking regarding the future of global action on climate change?

India and China’s future prominence in global climate actions is already taking shape, but we also trace some interesting scenarios below regarding Brazil and South Africa – amid the “BRICS” grouping – and even some future contributions from the United States, at the sub-national level.

Ongoing crucial negotiations

The Paris Agreement continued the post-2009 “bottom-up” structure of international climate agreements that allows countries themselves to declare what they plan to do to address global warming and its effects. The idea is that this process will encourage countries to keep increasing their levels of action as they see what others are doing. This “pledge and review” system works primarily through the nudges of transparency and shame.

Transparency has been complicated by the fact that there is no clear and fair accounting system for climate finance in place. Without one, India counted only $2.3 billion in new and additional climate finance from developed countries in 2014 while the OECD countries credited themselves with $62 billion. Such an agreed and uniform accounting system was promised for 2013 at the Cancun negotiation session in 2010 and has not yet been delivered.

Reaching agreement on, and announcing the accounting system should be at the top of the near-term climate agenda. An accounting system and the finance it would then tally are among the most fundamental demands of developing countries, where much of both future emissions and climate change impacts will occur over the next decades. Perhaps one reason why it has yet to be concluded is because the long-standing gaps between the climate finance promised and delivered by developed countries are more easily finessed without a shared accounting system. Negotiations have also floundered over questions like the balance between public and private finance and oversight mechanisms and institutions for both donors and recipients. However, the developed country governments may have ceded the high ground to the rising powers by delaying. Questions about whether emerging powers can also contribute to the finances of less-developed countries were answered in part by China’s pledge of $3.1 billion in such climate finance in Paris, just above the US pledge.

Emerging powers step up

One fear about US rejection of climate action has been its possible impact on the willingness of other countries to meet their own Paris commitments. The immediate response, outside of the United States, to the Trump administration’s actions has been encouraging, however – reminiscent of the ways that George W. Bush’s withdrawal of the US from the Kyoto Protocol galvanized the countries that remained committed to reaching an agreement to make it happen.

The leaders of emerging powers have been noticeably prominent in stepping up to claim a position of climate leadership. Chinese President Xi Jinping rallied global elites behind international environmental action in Davos a few days after the inauguration, telling Trump and everyone else that, “The Paris agreement is a hard-won achievement…all signatories should stick to it rather than walk away.”

The Indian Minister of State for Commerce & Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman, also promised her country’s continued commitment to limit emissions. India is particularly interested in opportunities to develop clean energy industries. Mexico said the same. Brazil has not made public pronouncements internationally, but its national development bank BNDES has reiterated its substantial commitment to financing wind and solar power. It has also specifically rejected the possibility of finance for coal-powered electricity plants.

For these countries and many others, their ongoing commitments to climate action reflect the fact that the Paris Accord’s framework allowed them to select climate actions that include substantial “co-benefits” – that is, they have ancillary benefits beyond those related directly to climate change. The same policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from India and China, for example, also help them address their toxic levels of air pollution. Other choices promote development of new industries, including wind and solar power – industries where China has already developed internationally competitive products. However, all countries need to identify more of these sorts of opportunities, as well as develop their own robust rationales to do climate action in its own right, as the actions with co-benefits are unlikely to be enough to avoid dangerous levels of global warming.

Brazil unfortunately seems to be the outlier in the rising powers story. While it continues to have renewable energy (large hydropower, biofuels, and wind power) at the core of its energy sector, most of its historic greenhouse gas emissions came from deforestation. Annual deforestation in the Amazon dropped by more than 80% from 2005 to 2012, a stunning achievement, but rates have stabilized and even show signs of rising again. Brazil did play a constructive role in negotiating the Paris Accord in 2015 and has a stake in its success. However, the new government shows few signs of pursuing any high profile international positions, as it is mired in economic recession and a major corruption scandal at home. Recent developments have linked the corruption scandal to former President Lula’s high profile mix of South-South foreign policy, new international development finance, and the expansion of Brazilian firms abroad, taking the sheen off new international initiatives.

Brazil aside for now, the increasing willingness of the major emerging powers to help provide this global public good has been a decade or more in the making. While their participation is crucial at any time, it is especially welcome at a time when the US will probably be absent, and the EU preoccupied with a series of crises from Greece’s debt to Brexit to the waves of refugees arriving.

Wind and solar, continuing rise

Wind and solar power and other renewable forms of energy are continuing their meteoric expansion on the back of ongoing drops in prices and continuing technological developments. In just one initiative, Indian Prime Minister Modi has mobilized more than 120 countries to join an International Solar Alliance that would like to generate investments of over $1 trillion in solar power. Participants include many of the solar-rich countries along the equator, including major African countries that had previously yet to commit to significant climate action.

China has announced that it will suspend the construction of 100 coal-fired plants to allow a larger share for cleaner forms of electricity. China will fill that larger share with more than $360 billion in planned new investments in renewable energy, possibly even before its 2020 target date. More than 170 countries now have some kind of renewable energy target or program. While China is making notable strides in changing its energy system at home, it could also contribute to these other national efforts by changing its international finance strategy to prioritize non-fossil fuels (see Kevin Gallagher’s EGG commentary).

What of Brazil, South Africa and Russia? Here, the story is not only one of progress. As Brazil’s economy staggered in 2016, it did not contract any new wind power for the first time in years. South Africa’s once-admired programs for contracting private supplies of wind and solar power have been stymied by the parastatal Eskom’s refusal to sign contracts for some of the winners of the last round of auctions. It would rather build nuclear power, and its slowing economy will not present the demand levels needed for both. BRICS partner Russia has never started any serious renewable energy programs.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assesses the current state of climate-related scientific research for the UN, has suggested a strategy of electrifying as many energy processes as possible because wind and solar power offer such a clear path for decarbonizing electricity. Storage for these intermittent electricity sources is an important technological frontier. At the end of January, three different sites in southern California installed grill-scale battery storage projects that can be used to supply peak demand periods. While still too expensive for widespread use, this technology may also be nearing the tipping point of affordability in the next few years.

Global observers should also be mindful that as wind and solar power along with battery storage grow to scale, their supply chains and sites will need to be closely monitored to avoid the emergence of “green vs. green” problems, i.e., that their low carbon electricity creates other environmental problems. There are already concerns about negative environmental and human rights impacts from lithium mining, for example. Appropriate attention – including from leaders of the emerging economies – needs to be given to tracking and mitigating these emerging risks.

Subnational action in the US

All is not lost in the United States. In such a multi-layered society and political structure, and with America’s corporate dynamism in new tech, there is still room for transformative climate change action, although the leadership is likely to come from the local levels. As the battery storage pilot projects suggest, environmental and climate action innovation is continuing to happen below the national level in the US. Governor Jerry Brown in California used his “State of the State” address on January 24 to announce that this large US state will be challenging Trump’s efforts to roll back climate action.

For some time, various US states have been well ahead of the federal government in climate action, mothballing coal fired power plants and experimenting with carbon markets. Five western states including California formed the Western Climate Initiative in 2007, laying the foundation for a possible future cap and trade system that would include Canadian provinces as well. And even deeply Republican states like Wyoming and Texas are leaders in wind power as it has become the cheapest option.

Overall, the absence of the US federal government as a leader in the climate change area will be felt keenly. The US has made the largest historical emissions of greenhouse gases and is still the second largest emitter, so it has a major carbon debt to pay off for the globe. But the absence of US national leadership in climate action is hardly unprecedented. This situation leaves room for the initiatives of others, including the national governments that may, currently, have a clearer view of the benefits, as well as costs, to climate action. They appear motivated to act. Moreover, the needs in reversing global climate change are broad and deep enough that there is a lot of room for contributions from all levels of society, of any nation, even if the current national leaders are not on board.

Kathryn Hochstetler (@hochstet) is Professor of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her research focuses on the intersection of the environment and development, including in global environmental negotiations, regional trade agreements, national environmental movements, and democratic institutions. She is the author of the prize-winning book, Greening Brazil: Environmental Activism in State and Society (Duke University Press, with Margaret Keck).

This article was first posted on the Global Policy Journal.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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