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Marrakech versus Washington

On Monday, COP 22 – the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – began in Marrakech, Morocco. Unlike last year’s event in Paris, this climate summit has received little publicity. There is hardly a mention of it in the mainstream media. Even the fact that the Paris agreement came into force last week (with the backing of both US and Chinese presidents, representing the two largest emitters of CO2) made little splash.

Even if it had, the world woke up two days after the jamboree had started to the unexpected (and, to some, shocking) news that Donald Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. What President Trump will actually do when he takes office next January is unknown. Already, he sounds far more conciliatory than we have come to expect, and the vitriol of one of the most unpleasant electoral campaigns in most people’s memory is a thing of the past (although it’s difficult to think of a more awkward meeting than that on Thursday between the incumbent and the president-elect).

His supporters will feel vindicated if he boosts employment, particularly among the disadvantaged working class, but it is unlikely that he will try to lock up ‘crooked Hillary’. One thing he has been very clear about, however, and one that will be central to his intention to boost economic growth and jobs, is the need to roll back the country’s climate change policy. As part of that, he has vowed to take the US out of the Paris agreement and encourage both fracking and construction of oil pipelines from Canada.

So, while only a week ago we could read that Paris climate deal enters force as focus shifts to action, the Guardian now reports Paris climate deal thrown into uncertainty by US election result, and yesterday’s New York Times carried the headline Donald Trump could put climate change on course for ‘Danger Zone’.  To quote from this:

Global warming may indeed be the sharpest example of how policy in Washington will change under a Trump administration. President Obama has said his efforts to establish the United States as the global leader in climate policy are his proudest legacy. But if Mr. Trump makes good on his campaign promises, experts in climate change policy warn, that legacy would unravel quickly. The world, then, may have no way to avoid the most devastating consequences of global warming, including rising sea levels, extreme droughts and food shortages, and more powerful floods and storms.

Perhaps a little perspective is needed in face of such claims of impending catastrophe. Trump has been labelled a ‘denier’ of climate change and, indeed, his language at times has been as intemperate as you might imagine. He has, for example, said in a tweet “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” This goes too far, by a long way, but actually contains a kernel of truth. Current policy represents a win-win situation for the country.

China has signed up for the Paris agreement. As the world’s largest emitter by some margin, it had to in today’s political environment. In so doing, however, there is little risk of the country compromising the continued growth that is needed to enable the Communist Party to retain power with minimal dissent. For a start, although last year’s agreement was hailed as the first that finally committed all parties to action (including China and the United States), there are no binding targets. Instead, signatories make pledges for emissions reduction. The only binding part of the deal is the five-yearly review, with the expectation that peer-pressure will make major economies ratchet up their commitments each time.

The official Chinese line is that their emissions will peak by 2030 and then decline. Much is made of the vast numbers of wind turbines and solar panels being installed in the country, but at the same time we have to realise that China continues to build about 50 coal-fired power stations annually. The main push is not for renewable energy, it is for more energy.

In these circumstances, global emissions are continuing to rise, with cuts by the EU and USA (largely as a result of shale gas replacing coal) not coming close to cancelling out the steady increase in China. And while attention is on China, in some ways the elephant in the room is an Indian one. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it clear that he will not compromise his country’s growth prospects in the cause of climate change mitigation. India may be a fairly distant fourth in the league of emitters, with an output less than a quarter of that of China, but it is on course to become the world’s most populous country and has ambitions to become a global economic power.

The likelihood is that, even if next January were to have seen the inauguration of another Democrat president, global emissions would not be declining significantly even by the late 2030’s, barring some technological breakthrough. The consequences of this to climate patterns, extreme weather and impact on humans and the rest of the natural world are unknown, despite the pronouncements from the IPCC and campaigners.

Given this, what difference will President Trump make? In practice, quite a lot. The negotiators of the Paris deal are desperate for no major country to break ranks. If one does, it makes it even more difficult to keep the rest on side. It makes it even less likely that India could be brought on board, and less likely that emissions reduction enthusiasts such as some EU member states (including one soon-to-be-ex-member state) will be able to push through the more radical policies deemed to be necessary.

It is unlikely that many Americans voted for the Donald because of his views on climate change, but very likely that many of those voters share them. This populist overthrow of the existing political order in Washington has sent shivers down the spines of many other leaders and buoyed the hopes of populist leaders in Europe, particularly those such as Marine Le Pen who will be standing in elections next year.

America is unique. What happens there will not necessarily be mirrored this side of the Pond, or elsewhere in the world. But the political upset should make other politicians think again about whether they are paying enough attention to the man in the street while trying to fulfil the expectations of the liberal elite. This election could turn out to mark the turning point for climate change policy as it currently exists. Maybe COP 23 will see thoughts turn to policies that address current priorities and governments will begin to look at more economic and successful ways to reduce emissions. Maybe we will even see the renaissance of nuclear energy.