The world warmed
White House hostility harmed, but didn't destroy, the international fight against climate change
Donald Trump's decision in June 2017 to pull the US out of the UN-backed Paris climate-change agreement may derail efforts to tackle manmade global warming. But the reaction from much of the rest of the world in the immediate wake of the decision suggested renewed determination to push on regardless, which may yet keep the process on track.
Trump's decision was part of a concerted effort to undo clean-energy legislation put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump, who regards climate change as little more than a hoax, considers Obama's laws an unnecessary environmental tax on industry and blames them for running America's coal industry into the ground.
Scott Pruitt, Trump's appointee as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency and a fellow climate-change sceptic, put it thus, when announcing plans to repeal Obama's Clean Power Plan in October: "Here's the president's message: the war on coal is over."
All of this produced howls of criticism, not just internationally but also from within the US. Thirteen US states, accounting for around a third of the country's GDP, announced their intention to subscribe to the Paris goals, regardless of the federal government's decision. Many of those states have backed their words with renewable portfolio standards, tax incentives and other policies to spur investment in clean energy. They were joined by some of America's largest industrial firms.
Crucially, China, the world's largest carbon dioxide CO2 emitter, said it would accelerate its efforts to meet its commitments under the Paris agreement. Abandoning years of climate diplomacy with the US under Obama, China also pledged to coordinate its agenda with the EU, which remains firmly committed—at the supra-national level at least—to the pact. The EU, which is home to the world's largest carbon market, is advising China on how to set up its own cap-and-trade initiative.
However, the loss of the US to the process is still a big blow, not least financially. A centrepiece of the global accord is the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to help poorer nations adapt to the effects of climate change. The fund, also designed to mobilise private-sector contributions, envisaged providing $100bn a year of support from 2020. However, the GCF had only accumulated around $10bn by mid-2017, and while the US had pledged a total of $3bn under the Obama administration, only a third had been delivered by the time Trump took office. If the US stops paying, as looks likely, the shortfall will become more marked.
Neither is the rest of the world completely united. Countries such as Bolivia and Malaysia expressed reservations about the process. Japanese industry pressured Tokyo to cut back on its green targets to ensure they remain competitive with regional rivals. Even in Europe there was some disunity. Poland and other former East Bloc countries are reluctant to introduce emissions reductions at the pace that Brussels would like, fearing these would cripple their coal-fired industries.
Meanwhile, global carbon emissions continued to rise. The seasonally-corrected level of atmospheric CO2 recorded at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's lab in Hawaii stood at around 406 parts per million in September 2017, compared with around 384ppm a decade earlier. The UN-backed measures aim to keep emissions below a "safe" level of 450ppm.
Few believe that this is possible with current climate-change measures. However, since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, evidence that most of the world's largest economies are sincere about implementing measures to fight global warming has mounted.
Where the US will fit in to this effort remained unsettled. The Trump administration said the US might stay in the agreement after all, if it could negotiate more favourable terms. However, it is hard to envisage radically changed terms that would be acceptable to the other major signatories of the agreement.
Then there is the question of timing. The Paris exit process started by the Trump administration will take years, not taking effect until November 2020, days after the next presidential election. If Trump loses in 2020, his Democrat opponent would almost certainly seek to keep the US in Paris.
This article is part of Outlook 2018, our annual book looking at energy market trends for the year ahead. To purchase a copy, click here