Trump cannot kill climate hope

NEWS Published

As the USA now plans to exit the Paris Climate agreement, the EU and Sweden can have the greatest impact by demonstrating that combining competitiveness and high levels of prosperity with continuing to reduce climate emissions is possible. The entrepreneurial sector will drive climate issues forward, more than policy makers. Technical innovation is advancing quickly in many fields, reducing costs for new technology. Even US President Donald Trump cannot change these facts despite his misguided passion for coal, writes Maria Sunér Fleming, Head of Energy and Climate Policy at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.

Mr. Trump recently issued notice that the USA is withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was ratified in 2016. The US thereby joins the two only other countries – Syria and Nicaragua – who have chosen to not ratify the agreement. But, Mr. Trump included in his notice that he intended to ‘renegotiate’ the agreement for the purpose of rejoining, or to create an entirely new agreement that is better than the Paris Agreement. And, by ‘better’, Mr. Trump claims he can make the agreement better for the US, which in his view is currently detrimental to American interests.

Having followed the process of building the current Paris agreement, I question Mr. Trump’ statements. The first observation is to note that the process itself was long and complicated, so any belief that an entirely new agreement can be easily negotiated is simply naive. Secondly, the agreement, as is, has a built-in flexibility with its intentionally non-binding national commitments and lack of sanctions. These qualities were, in fact, a basic prerequisite for agreement and were necessary to gain acceptance from so many countries. Instead, the agreement builds on voluntary commitments by each country as to how much they would reduce GHG emissions – based on their local conditions. This would naturally be monitored, but the lack of sanctions leaves the agreement with only the possibility to “name and shame” those countries that fail to keep promises made.

The national commitments the USA had made were based on the ‘Clean Power Plan’ developed under former US president, Barack Obama, which Mr. Trump had already reversed. In other words, Mr. Trump has already cancelled the voluntary commitments of his predecessor within the framework of the Paris Agreement. The step of ‘leaving’ the climate agreement is therefore merely symbolic. As well, many states and businesses in the US have declared their intention to continue working to reduce climate emissions regardless of any national program.

But the important consideration is that the actions of Mr. Trump do not start a chain reaction where more countries exit the Paris Agreement, or simply reduce the level of their ambitions. So far, most international reactions, including from China and Russia, have indicated that countries are not being influenced by the actions of the current US president. The EU has clearly declared their intention to continue with their stated commitments and they hope the US will remain alone in leaving the agreement.

Clearly, climate policy must include cost efficiency and international competitiveness components. Being able to create the greatest climate benefits for the money invested is central to meeting the climate challenges and important providing a good example, especially now with the US failing to contribute. The EU and Sweden can have the greatest impact by showing that combining competitiveness with high levels of prosperity while continuing to reduce climate emissions is possible. The recent action of the US government highlights the importance of ensuring that the review of the EU Emissions Trading System does not lead to restricting global competitiveness of EU businesses, especially in relation to their American counterparts. This would have a negative impact for both economic development and the climate. It is equally important for Sweden to use policy instruments that have real impact rather than being merely symbolic. An example of such a symbolic climate measure is the Swedish Air Travel Tax, which has no linkage to driving innovation or transitioning to more climate-smart solutions.

But, is there no hope for the climate without US participation? I certainly don’t think so.

Technical innovation is advancing quickly in many fields, reducing costs for new technology. In electrical power generation, wind power is currently among the cheapest technologies available. And Mr, Trump’s mania for coal can be overcome. In the transport sector as well, technical developments are very positive, where electric drive and battery costs are swiftly declining and expected to soon be competitive with fossil-fuel technologies. This is where the enterprise sector has a clear role in climate efforts – where development and innovation to make climate-smart solutions competitive and attractive in global markets. The commitment and innovation of the entrepreneurial sector will continue to drive climate issues forward more than public policy. As is often pointed out, the stone age didn’t end due to a shortage of stone, but rather it was smarter more useful solutions that gained ascendency.

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