100 days of Trump: In search of clarity

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

There have always been three questions, not one, about President Donald Trump's plans on climate change and clean energy:

  • What will he do?
  • What effect will it have in the United States?
  • What impact will it have on the rest of the world?

A hundred days in, some answers are emerging. They are, in order, broadly: 

  • Not as much as he promised
  • Not anywhere as much as he seemed to believe
  • Virtually nothing.

Of course, the Presidency still has a further 1,361 days to run - yes, I know that number will have you Greens reaching for the Jack Daniels in deep despair, but reality's a harsh liquor - so we're still largely in the realm of forecasting.

But recall the campaign promises: 'cancel' the Paris Agreement, re-build the coal industry, expand oil and gas output. In all of these areas, the scale of his true intentions are unclear, let alone his actual plans. As unclear, you might say, as his strategy in Syria or the prospects of getting his Mexican wall built.

We're not quite there yet, are we?

What will he do?

On a national level, the main thrust so far is really about removing regulations. Fewer restrictions on car manufacturers, coal miners, oil refineries - everyone who might extract or use fossil fuels. The President has even removed restrictions regarding bribery by oil companies.

Climate & Energy: Five Top Trumps

20 Jan: Freezes new climate change and energy regulations

16 Feb: Repeals regulations preventing coal miners from dumping waste in streams

15 March: Announces that rules restricting vehicle emissions from 2022 will be reconsidered

16 March: Proposes cutting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget by a third, and scrapping payments for climate preparedness and international programmes

28 March: Announces review of Clean Power Plan and methane emission limits for oil and gas installations; scraps use of social cost of carbon

There'll be less scrutiny and evidence too - less data being produced that citizens might use to, for example, hold the government to account. Less data on emissions from oil wells and refineries, less information on climate impacts coming down the pike; and possibly, in time, less observation of Earth from space and thus poorer weather forecasts than might otherwise be the case.

By contrast with this deregulatory push on fossil fuels, renewable energy has thus far been relatively unscathed. Tax credits for solar investment, for example, remain. But this might not continue. The Department of Energy has halted the ARPA-E programme which supports early-stage technological development; and similar slashes are anticipated elsewhere.

There are, though, many Republican states where wind and solar power are thriving and popular. That means an active political self-interest from the Red end of Congress in keeping them going.

Internationally, although we're not sure about the Paris Agreement position yet, the pragmatists from business and diplomacy seem to be winning what the Washington Post calls a 'White House war with itself'.

The one thing we can be fairly sure about thus far is that US financial contributions for climate change internationally will be cut - possibly to zero. By far the greater part of this is money that flows to developing countries, either through international bodies such as the Green Climate Fund or direct from Washington to recipient. 

Under Barack Obama, the US pledged $3bn to the Green Climate Fund, and has so far handed over $1bn of it. It must be doubtful whether Donald Trump will release the remaining $2bn. This is a discrete pot of money, so easy to monitor. If Trump is serious, he will also strip the climate change component out of all other funds that the US gives abroad.

But counting that won't be easy. Much of what the US spends on diplomacy and aid unilaterally, and much of that which goes through bodies such as the World Bank, has some relevance to climate change - but there are a heck of a lot of beans to count. The President is also proposing slashing a quarter of funding for the State Department and USAID - one of many budgetary ideas that Congress has either scuppered or postponed.

A much smaller sum of money goes towards keeping pivotal international organisations going - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN climate convention, the World Meteorological Organization. Typically the US will pay around a quarter of the budget of such organisations.

What effect will it have in the United States?

In the short term, the regulatory changes are likely to have very little visible effect. Companies and investors generally decide on energy projects years ahead of time; even by the end of the Donald's first term, therefore, what happens in terms of commissioning and decommissioning facilities will still largely derive from policies established under Barack Obama.

Trump Digs Coal Tammy Anthony Baker 700X700

...but does coal dig him back? Image: Tammy Anthony Baker, CC Licence

Thus, coal-fired power stations and coal mines will continue to close. Who says so? Coal companies.

Equally, cars bought tomorrow will be those that were designed at the beginning of the Obama Presidency, on the basis of rules in place then and those the industry anticipated coming quickly down the pike.

Some regulatory changes will have a small and growing effect in the short term. For example, some oil refineries and gas wells now won't have to fit equipment to stop gases escaping. 

They may still do so, simply to save money by not wasting gas. But their calculation on how much money they'll save will be determined by their view of what'll happen to oil and gas prices, which will in turn be affected by whether the President actively tries to increase US production as he promised during his election campaign - because increasing production will ensure prices stay low.

All players in the fossil fuel game have to contend with two kinds of risk if they relax their progress towards a cleaner, more efficient energy future. One is that Donald Trump may be replaced after four years by a President who doubles down on Barack Obama's climate policies in a bid to 'make up for lost time'. If that happens, companies that invest in clean now will be in a better place than those that act as though the dirty days are here to stay.

The second risk is that developments in the rest of the world will keep clean energy costs tumbling - and thus render investments today in coal, oil and gas stranded assets.

Overall, the US will probably burn slightly more coal and oil and gas over the next four years than it would have done under a Clinton Presidency. But only slightly. Eight years of The Donald, and the curves diverge more.

What impact will it have on the rest of the world?

From a vantage point in Europe or North America, it's often forgotten that our continents are small fry. Asia is home to more than half of the world's population, and living standards are rising.

Increasingly, what happens in Asia doesn't stay in Asia - it ripples round the world.

Beijing Airport Murdocke23 848X170

China is where the clean energy transition is really taking off. Image: murdocke23, CC Licence

Although there are still a few people who maintain that China and India will carry on burning coal forever, their Earth is becoming rapidly flatter. These two Asian giants have colossally ambitious targets for building renewable energy capacity: China will have 300GW of wind and solar capacity combined by 2020 (almost doubling in five years), while India will derive more than half of its electricity from non-fossil sources by 2027. They'll spearhead a near-doubling of global wind energy capacity in just five years.

Oh, and then there are electric vehicles: 15 million of them on Chinese roads by 2030, is the plan. That means batteries, fast charging points and a smart grid.

There is no way that all this won't make clean energy cheaper. And, as nations that plan ahead, no way that India and China will change direction - why would they?

Diplomatically, the picture is a little different. The US under Barack Obama and John Kerry was absolutely pivotal to securing the Paris Agreement, with years of behind-the-scenes negotiations and orchestrated set-pieces forming a bond of trust with China.

Despite his pre-election bluster, Mr Trump currently seems pretty well disposed to China's President Xi. Well-disposed enough to work constructively inside the UN climate convention next year - the first time that governments assess their collective and relative progress? Well-disposed enough to stick that missing $2bn in the Green Climate Fund? 

Maybe not.

Money matters here. $100bn per year might or might not be a fair contribution for the developed world to make to its poorer brethren to help them protect against climate impacts and green their economies; but it's the figure that the developed world has agreed to pay by 2020. It's become a totem. 

If it looks like that sum isn't coming, that could have big consequences for how some developing nations view the UN process. Why should they make an effort, some will argue, if the world's wealthiest country isn't going to?

It would have practical consequences too, as some of the poorest nations are depending on assistance to constrain their greenhouse gas emissions.

However - the UN climate convention and the Paris Agreement have many important backers: China, India, the European Union, Canada, Mexico, Bangladesh. Far too much power there to let the agreement slip beneath the waves, even though it might take something of a bath for a few years.

In conclusion...

Although, as I wrote just after Mr Trump's election during last year's UN climate summit in Marrakech, there is no way to paint his presidency in green shades, it's also not as bleak as some left-wing catastrophists would have you think.

Appropriately for someone who believes in small government, Donald Trump's capacity to shape the world of energy is much less than he has claimed. Economics has its own implacable logic, and the natural world is sending us ever more frequent signals that the era of climate change impacts has well and truly begun.

A hundred days into this fledgling Presidency, we are seeing some of what Mr Trump's Administration wants to do on energy and climate change, though much remains swaddled in opaque clothes. As to what effect it'll all have... so far, more a firecracker than a Mother of All Bombs. And set, one suspects, to remain so.