Moving to a low carbon future—with or without Trump

The election of Donald Trump poses a risk that the United States will withdraw from international climate action efforts. Global Green Growth Institute’s Mahua Acharya argues that the world can decarbonize despite this.

flags of nations at COP22
Flags of the nearly 200 nations participating at the United Nations Climate Change summit in Marrakesh, Morocco. Leaders were stunned by US President-elect Trump's announcement that he plans to quickly withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Image: Justin Catanoso via

In 2012, Trump dismissed climate change as a hoax created by the Chinese. On the campaign trail, he vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Three weeks ago, he said he has “an open mind” on the Paris Agreement. What ‘open mind’ really means is not clear.

However, a few days ago, incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus pushed back on a suggestion that Trump’s stance could be softening by saying that the default stance of the White House on climate change was likely to be “it is a bunch of bunk”. Fickle doesn’t even begin to describe him.

On the plane to Marrakech for the climate meetings in November, I felt like I was going to a funeral: unfamiliar with how to the respond to what felt like the death of an international process. I have been working on climate change for many years, and I recall the horror of the United States withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. But this felt different.

As the days pass by and the world watches the United States staff up its most powerful house, the reality is a little more complex. Steven Groves, a lawyer with the State Department’s transition team, suggested two days ago that the “most practical” way for the US to drop its climate change commitments was to exit the UNFCCC – the original agreement that gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

What this means in practical terms is that the US would cancel its funding commitments to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a fund whose creation the United States helped champion in a last minute attempt to rescue failed climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009. The US currently contributes 3 billion dollars to the GCF. This is likely to dry up.

 But the path to a cleaner future actually remains fairly open. Over two thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use, much of which is comprised of electricity generation. The greatest capacity addition comes from developing countries experiencing rapid economic growth.

The idea of the world’s second largest polluter and economic super power free-riding on the efforts of others is shameful, to say the least.

Yet, most developing countries pledged to reduce their emissions, increase their share of renewables, or do both. These ambitions may well be achievable because the price of clean energy – especially solar – has been tumbling. In India, a recent bid landed at $0.05 per kWh, one of the lowest ever. India plans to reach 100GW of solar capacity by 2022, up from 5.8 GW today.

China has added the most solar capacity in the last five years, and plans to add another 150 GW more by 2020, triple what it has today as the world’s largest solar generator. The cost of batteries in electric vehicles has fallen by 80 per cent in the last seven years, and as more countries add renewables to their grids, battery demand will rise. With competition, prices usually come down.

China intends to become the world’s biggest renewables hub – making the cheapest panels, wind turbines, batteries, as well as the systems that link them all together. Clearly, China sees an opportunity here to make money.

China takes air pollution seriously, perhaps as serious as it takes renewable energy. Beijing’s air is unbreathable. Crossing the roads in most secondary cities near Beijing is a challenge because it is hard to see the other side through the haze.  

A recent study showed that air pollution contributed to the deaths of over a million people every year in China. Doubling the global share of renewables by 2030 could save more than 4 million lives annually, thanks to reduced air pollution. Switching from burning coal to using solar or wind turbines thus makes sense twice over.

Indonesia has announced an ambitious 2020 renewables target. Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines aren’t far behind. 2015 was the year that renewables surpassed coal as the world’s biggest source of power generating capacity.

Turned away from tariff barriers in Europe and the States, Chinese solar projects are popping up across Africa too, ranging from massive megawatt sized facilities in Ghana to smaller off-grid villages in Tanzania. According to the International Energy Agency, Chinese companies accounted for 30 per cent of the new capacity additions in the region over the last five years.

As part of the strategy to gain access to foreign markets, this share is likely to grow. And, the demand is huge: over 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live without electricity.

The reality in the States is not very different either. For the trillions of dollars that Trump hopes will be fracked on federal lands, nobody will sink a well unless it is profitable to do so. For this to happen, oil prices have to be substantially higher.

A recent study by Case Western University has confirmed that shale gas, not (EPA) regulations, has pushed a decline in coal-generated power. Consumption of coal continued to grow during 1990-era EPA rules until 2008. Coal consumption then went into steady decline, dropping by 23 per cent from 2008 thru 2015, says the report.

All this is happening, and will continue to happen, with or without the Paris Agreement, or the US backing out, or Trump calling climate change a hoax. 

But to be clear, there is much to regret in the US pulling out of multilateralism – Trump’s biggest grouse, despite his fickleness. The idea of the world’s second largest polluter and economic super power free-riding on the efforts of others is shameful, to say the least.

Perhaps it is time to reverse the age-old wrangles with trade tariffs and put a carbon tax on American imports.

 China, India, the European Union, Canada, and others have strong incentives to embrace cleaner technologies. Africa has much to gain as these countries mature with renewables technologies. If they work together they can make a difference and the world can decarbonize despite Trump.


Mahua Acharya is the assistant director-general of GGGI and head of the Investment and Policy Solutions Division. Views expressed here are her own. 

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