You have read 1 of 3 stories. Sign up for free to read more.

From climate ‘quiet quitting’ to human rights decline, how will Trump’s re-election trouble Asia?

It is looking ever more likely that Donald Trump will be the next US President. How worried should Asia be about the impact of Trump 2.0 on the climate, human rights and the energy transition?

Donald Trump 2024 election campaign materials.
Donald Trump, whose first term in office from 2017 to 2021 was characterised by protectionism, political polarisation and the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, is tipped for re-election in November 2024. Image: Gilbert Mercier / Flickr

Americans will elect their next president in 2024, and it looks ever more likely that Donald Trump will retake the White House.

The reality TV star and businessman whose first term was characterised by protectionism, political polarisation and propping up the fossil fuels industry looks certain to win the Republican party’s nomination and face down octogenarian incumbent Joe Biden in the presidential election in November. Biden is facing an uphill battle to win a second term, and has an approval rating lower than every president since Dwight Eisenhower at this stage of their tenure. 

Using his many court appearances to rally support from his base, observers note how Trump’s rhetoric is even more extreme than it was when he came to office in 2017. His potential re-election is triggering fears both at home and overseas, particularly as the policy agenda he is campaigning on has signalled the intensification of trade wars, political retaliation and threats to democracy, human rights and the energy transition. 

Among the reasons to worry about a Trump presidency is his outright aversion to climate action. Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord in 2020. His successor re-entered the US into the pact in 2021. Trump has promised to pull out again.

As the world’s second biggest polluter, the US has a strong influence over other major emitters. A Paris Agreement without the US revives the danger of other countries taking the “If the US isn’t going to do it, why should we?” approach to climate stewardship, said Steven Okun, founder of APAC Advisors, a Singapore-based strategic advisory firm. Countries that have shown questionable progress in meeting their Paris commitments might “quiet quit” the treaty altogether – and duck out of other global environmental deals such as the United Nations plastic pollution pact, Okun suggested.

Climate watchers will be hoping that environmental action will trundle on regardless of Trumpism. Even though the Trump administration weakened energy efficiency standards, opened up land for oil and gas leasing and rolled back more than 100 environmental protection rules, greenhouse gas emissions in the US actually fell during his term, as state- and city-level carbon-reduction efforts and a rocketing renewable energy market helped keep the lid on domestic climate pollution. The Covid-19 pandemic also played a key role in reducing emissions in the US.

As for a Trump re-election’s impact overseas, the picture will be mixed – and not all bad. Here are a few ways Trump 2.0 might affect environmental and social issues in Asia Pacific.

Paris exodus

Withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement – again – could give ammunition to other big polluters that have shown opposition to major climate treaties, such as China, India and Indonesia, which did not sign a pact to triple green energy at the COP28 climate talks. Could these countries now exit Paris too, rolling back climate progress in countries whose emissions trajectories are still heading in the wrong direction? The US under Trump would pull out of the accord, partly because Republicans believe that the treaty does not exert enough pressure on China, India and other developing nations to cut emissions. While campaigning, Trump has already said he will do so, and would support increased nuclear energy production. 

Safe states

If the US exits Paris, climate action would likely continue at a state level. The best example is California, the world’s fifth largest economy, which will require companies that do business in the Golden state to disclose their Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions data starting in 2026 and their Scope 3 emissions data by 2027. “If you’re doing business in California, and your supply chain is in Asia, you are going to require your supply chain to decarbonise [regardless of whether Trump is president or not],” said Okun.

Meanwhile, litigation against states for climate action failure are unlikely to abate under a Trump administration. In August 2023, a group of young people in the state of Montana won a “landmark” lawsuit, the first of its kind in the US, where a judge ruled that the state violated its constitution by failing to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects.

Carbon-cutting corporates

A US Paris withdrawal might undermine business strategies that are aligned with the agreement’s goal of keeping global warming at 1.5°C, Okun suggested. For instance, the 4,000 companies, many of them US-based multinationals, that have had net-zero targets validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a standard for Paris-aligned corporate decarbonisation, might do a U-turn. “Will net-zero targets still matter if Trump wins?” asked Okun. 

But Assaad Razzouk, chief executive of renewables firm Gurin Energy, believes that “the train has left the station” as pressure grows on companies to decarbonise from investors, customers and employees; a new US president is unlikely to slow momentum. “A Trump re-election is certain to have impact in boardrooms in the US. But boardrooms in Asia are more concerned about their own climate footprint and now understand that it’s [climate action] not about net zero, it’s about health and economics,” he said.

What’s happening in Brussels, for instance the Europe Union Deforestation Regulation, is of far more importance to Asian businesses than Trump’s policies, Razzouk said.

Trump has vowed to increase US production of fossil fuels by easing the permitting process for drilling on federal land and would encourage new natural gas pipelines.

Adaptation finance under threat

The US – the world’s largest historical climate polluter – promised to contribute to a loss and damage fund (reportedly US$17.5 million) to help developing countries adapt to climate change at COP28. However, Trump, who believes that the US has no global responsibility to help fight climate change, has said that he will renege on a US$3 billion US pledge to the Green Climate Fund, a Seoul-based fund set up to help climate-vulnerable nations.

The IRA and renewables regulation

The Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s landmark US$370 billion bill to support clean energy and electric vehicles, is firmly in Trump’s sights. Although the bill has brought funding and jobs in solar, wind and battery manufacturing to Republican-supported areas, the likely incoming president will want to gut the IRA, which could slow the energy transition by redrawing the rules for the IRA’s tax credits. In recent rallies, Trump has called renewables “a scam business” and promised to nix “crooked Joe Biden’s insane electric vehicle mandate” and approve gas export terminals halted by Biden. Countries such as Indonesia, which recently downgraded an already weak target for renewables growth, might feel more justified in doing so. 

Chinese EVs and solar panels

Sourcing cheap solar panels and electric vehicles from China would speed up the energy transition in the US and lower the cost of green goods for Americans, said Gwyneth Fries, a regional sustainability expert. However, Trump is unlikely to relax import duties already in place to freeze out Chinese solar manufacturers and protect America’s small solar industry.

Carbon border tax

A Trump administration is likely to slap heavy taxes on trade with China. Some of these taxes might benefit the climate. If the US were to introduce a pollution tax targeted at China, in the style of the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) which places a levy on carbon-intensive goods, this could speed up the decarbonisation of global supply chains, said Okun.

Plastic pollution treaty all at sea?

If the United States backs out of negotations to create the first legally binding treaty to tackle plastic pollution, as Trump may well do, other countries, including those in Asia – the biggest contributor to plastic pollutions globally by far – may go cold on the agreement too. However, Doug Woodring, managing director of Hong Kong-headquartered waste recovery NGO Ocean Recovery Alliance, believes that the momentum towards global action on plastic pollution “has already swung”.

Though the terms of the treaty are likely to be voluntary, with some countries moving ahead apace and others moving more slowly, laws such as the EU’s on electronic waste and single-use plastic, are starting to affect Asian supply chains for recycled content. “The world shouldn’t panic if he [Trump] gets back in. He won’t slow down any commitments [to tackle plastic pollution],” Woodring said. 

Sino-American relations

The relationship between the US and China is critical for climate action at scale. A working relationship between the two countries paved the way for the Paris Agreement. They also made an agreement to work together at the COP28 cilmate talks, following a diplomatic push to ease tensions. Biden and China premier Xi Jinping showed that they can work together. Can Xi cooperate with a president more interested in reviving America’s fossil fuels sector than climate action? 


The movement to incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues into the business world went into reverse in the US in 2023 because of a bitter politically-charged backlash in the West. Almost half of businesses surveyed in the US experienced backlash to their ESG policies or activities in 2023, mainly from policymakers and to a lesser extent from employees and customers. 

“You will hear fewer and fewer people use the term ESG [if Trump wins],” said Okun. While the principles of ESG –calculating the environmental and social issues that pose a material risk to business – will remain unchanged, the concept will be renamed, he predicted. 

But even as ESG becomes a dirty word in the US, expect to see an increase in climate disclosure globally regardless, said Steve Newman, chief sustainability officer at EarthCheck, a sustainability consultancy. “The EU is still leading the way with ESG, and large US companies are still going to need to comply with EU regulations,” he said. “Southeast Asia is generally following the lead taken by the EU – not the US.”

Democracy deficit 

Trump has continued to claim – wrongly – that he won the US presidential election in 2020, and has been accused of inciting the invasion of the Capitol in 2021 to overturn the election results. An authoritarian US president governing the world’s most influential democracy gives permission to authorianism elsewhere, further complicating Southeast Asia’s internal dynamics and external relationships, according to Abdul Razak, founding director of Bait Al Amanah, a Malaysian think tank. 

Human rights reversal

A Trump-led America might lack the moral authority to preach to other countries about human rights, at a time when the suppression of human rights defenders and universal human rights principles and laws are under pressure globally. One of Trump’s first moves after taking office in 2017 was the “Muslim ban”, an executive order to retrict people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, and slam the door on refugees. Towards the end of his term, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the Trump administration issued a report that justified America’s founding on the basis of slavery. Trump’s apparent disregard for human rights at home would mean that US diplomats could not beat the drum for human rights abroad, and American claims of being a superpower that does the right thing would ring ever more hollow.

An American retreat from its historical stance on human rights might warm relations with countries where civil liberties have withered, such as India under prime minister Narendra Modi. It might also add to the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over international civil society groups pushing for change in increasingly repressive countries, such as Indonesia, which has just elected a president with a dark history of human rights abuses.

In some cases, a Trump presidency may favour human rights, if it suits American interests. It was under Trump that Malaysian palm oil company Sime Darby was banned from selling its products in the US over forced labour allegations. A similar ruling, in 2020, banned rubber gloves produced by Malaysian firm Top Glove from import into the United States because the products were allegedly made by forced labour. “Whether the motive is to protect human rights or to protect US workers from competing with companies that are engaged in abuse, the US will be enforcing its regulations regardless,” said Okun.


Trump has claimed he will end the Ukraine war in a day and wreck the Nato military alliance. An end to the Ukraine war may stabilise energy prices. Observers are also examining how a potential Trump presidency might affect Taiwan policy and whether it changes Beijing’s calculation. Unlike Biden, who has said that the US assist Taiwan if it is attacked, most believe that Trump would be striking a deal with Xi. 

Did you find this article useful? Join the EB Circle!

Your support helps keep our journalism independent and our content free for everyone to read. Join our community here.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →