When Donald Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, it seemed like a big deal. When you’re trying to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, losing the sole superpower isn’t a great start. Barack Obama had previously pledged to reduce America’s emissions by 26–28% from 2005 levels by 2025.
In truth, it was a big moment, though not for the reason the grandstanding Trump might have expected. This President’s actions tend to produce quite violent reactions, and this occasion proved no different. On the same day, the Governors of New York, California and Washington state, which represent 68 million Americans and more than one-fifth of US GDP, announced they were forming a coalition to fight climate change. Since then, 10 further states have signed up to the US Climate Alliance, including Massachusetts and Vermont, which both have Republican Governors. Puerto Rico has joined, and 10 further states and territories have expressed their continued support for the Paris Accords. California’s Jerry Brown spoke for many of his fellow Governors:
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“I don’t believe fighting reality is a good strategy – not for America, not for anybody… If the President is going to be AWOL in this profoundly important human endeavour, then California and other states will step up.”
In effect, the US battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has moved from federal to regional and city level. This is of a piece with the evolution of environmental policy in recent years, which has been towards a ‘bottom up’ approach. Organisations such as Galvanising the Groundswell of Climate Actions have brought together companies, cities, researchers and others to support and collaborate with one another in their activities. RE100 represents 100 top businesses committed to achieving 100 per cent renewable electricity. Members include tech behemoths Apple, Google, eBay and Facebook, insurance giants such as Swiss Re, Aviva and Axa, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, General Motors, Coca Cola and AstraZeneca. They are required to set a public goal to source 100% of their global electricity consumption from renewable sources by a specified year, and to disclose their electricity data annually.1.
Even the Paris agreement reflects this move towards voluntarism: unlike previous global climate treaties, it requires each country to put forward a pledge, but allows the detail of the pledge to be ‘nationally determined’. This allows nations to choose the actions and opportunities that suit them best – most are seeking to boost their economy through the creation of new industries and jobs, improve public health and become less dependent on energy imports.
It seems to be working – the renewables stream has become a flood. As the Financial Times’ respected environment correspondent Pilita Clark reported in May:
“After years of hype and false starts, the shift to clean power has begun to accelerate at a pace that has taken the most experienced experts by surprise. Even leaders in the oil and gas sector have been forced to confront an existential question: will the 21st century be the last one for fossil fuels? It is early, but the evidence is mounting. Wind and solar parks are being built at unprecedented rates, threatening the business models of established power companies. Electric cars that were hard to even buy eight years ago are selling at an exponential rate, in the process driving down the price of batteries that hold the key to unleashing new levels of green growth.”
It’s estimated that:
- Almost three-quarters of the $10.2 trillion that will be invested globally in new power technology by 2040 will go to renewables, as the cost of solar and wind power plummets and the number of electric cars on our roads soars.
- Solar is already as cheap as coal in many industrialised nations, including Germany and the US, and the cost of solar electricity is expected to fall a further 66% by 2040.
- Over the same timescale, the cost of onshore wind is expected to drop by 47% and offshore wind by 71%.
- The perennial problem of storing energy from renewables for use in peak times is being addressed by the development of utility-scale batteries. According to Morgan Stanley energy analyst Stephen Byrd:
“Numerous key markets have reached an inflection point where renewables will have become the cheapest form of new power generation by 2020, a dynamic we see spreading to nearly every country we cover.”
The encouraging news just keeps on coming:
- In July, France’s environment minister Nicolas Hulot revealed a plan to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, and said France will no longer use coal to produce electricity after 2022.
- The parliament of Catalonia has recently passed a law aimed at reducing emissions by 65% by 2040 and 100% by 2050. Businesses will be taxed $10 for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted rising to $30 in 2025.
- Norway is the latest country to endorse Under2, a global coalition of national and sub-national governments committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions toward net-zero by 2050, which now includes 177 jurisdictions on six continents that collectively represent more than 16% of the global population and 39% of the global economy.
- Many nations are meeting environmental targets that once seemed optimistically ambitious well ahead of schedule2.
There’s a long way to go before we can say we’re living in a world powered by renewable energy. But it seems like the tipping point has been reached. Investors and innovators are getting filthy rich; the technology is making exponential leaps forward; and the hard work’s no longer being left to national governments, which have struggled to balance the green agenda against competing interests and the pressures of domestic electoral politics.
As Tom Hale, an environmental policy expert at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, says:
“The commitments made by sub-national governments and private companies, if delivered, could remove as much carbon from the atmosphere by 2030 as the 190 pledges nation states made in Paris. That could potentially close as much as two thirds of the remaining “emissions gap” we face to get the world onto a trajectory to limit global warming to two degrees or lower this century.”
The momentum is surely now unstoppable, and in ways that should please both left and right. In the end, it won’t be state enforcement that will save our climate, or Al Gore’s latest film on the subject, An Inconvenient Sequel, which has just opened in the UK3. Instead a healthy coalition of public, private and voluntary has come together out of commercial self-interest, community spirit and political imperative.
Thankfully, for the planet’s sake, it doesn’t look like anyone, including the current, thankfully temporary occupant of the White House, can get in the way.