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When climate negotiators, business and NGO observers arrived for the third day of COP22 climate proceedings in Marrakesh at 8am on 9 November, the very fresh news of the US election result was written across many sleepless faces. While climate featured very sparsely in the vexed debates between the presidential candidates, a couple of headlines from Donald Trump gave an indication of his likely action: he has promised to unwind the US commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement and repeal the US Clean Power Plan within his first 100 days in office.
With a Republican majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the ability to put a conservative nominee into the vacant seat in the Supreme Court, it is fair to say that the US leadership on climate that has been seen in Obama’s last term in office is unlikely to continue.
However, what’s said on the campaign trail can be quite different to what’s delivered in practice, so an element of "wait and see" is required. The state of play right now looks something like this:
- Will the US honour its commitment to the Paris Agreement? Right now, there is speculation that President-elect Trump will immediately end the US participation on constitutional grounds. The Agreement calls for participants to honour their commitments for at least four years, giving one year’s notice of intention to leave. However, Trump has indicated that since it was agreed to through an Executive Order and was not ratified by the US Senate, the US has no commitment, stating that he will cancel the executive action, and thereby void the commitment. The entire situation is likely to be tied up in legal wrangling for many years while the Paris Agreement signatories work out what, if anything, can be done to hold the US to its commitments
- However, when the US abandoned the previous climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, it was a key player amongst a small group of developed countries that were responsible for delivering on reductions in developed economies. The Paris Agreement commits 190 countries to a shared responsibility to reduce emissions, and losing one of those shouldn’t cause the wheels to fall off. Although there is no escaping the fact that as the second largest carbon emitter and certainly the wealthiest country, its departure will seriously compromise progress
- Following Ronald Reagan’s election as US President in 1980, environmental and climate issues wandered lonely and abandoned in the wilderness for about two to three years. But President Reagan then went on to do quite a bit, including signing one of the most successful international environmental treaties – the Montreal Protocol. With the focus on the economy and jobs, the new administration could walk a similar path, particularly as the climate issue won’t go away, and if it sees the contribution renewables can play to its agenda
- One of the campaign pledges was “let’s make coal great again.” However, the US energy reality is that coal isn’t going out of business because of climate regulation – it’s losing the price war with natural gas
So how has the Trump election result affected work at COP22? Beyond the surprise, tired faces and questions, life goes on. The most important work here is about establishing the processes and procedures for measuring and reporting progress against the Paris reduction commitments which only formally come into force in 2020. That work is expected to take at least two to three years. While the US would be missed, that critical enabling infrastructure must be built, and work continues to do so.
And back in the US, the heavy lifting has been and will continue to be done at State level. California, on its own the sixth largest economy in the world, is unlikely to back-pedal on its world-leading Cap & Trade regulation. Many other states are part of regional initiatives that are joining up dots across the country – from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the East, to the Western Climate Initiative on the other side.
Most importantly, although business hates uncertainty, that never stops companies from taking action on issues that pose great opportunity or risk. Climate change fits that category, and businesses with supply chains impacted; customers, shareholders or employees that care; CEOs that have made pledges committing them to 100% renewable energy, science-based reduction targets, carbon neutrality or one of the many others; that see growth from the low carbon economy; or with operations in countries that continue to be part of the Paris Agreement; will all continue to act.
So, while there are plenty of questions about what happens next from a federal point of view, business will be undeterred in its belief that it must now, more than ever, lead the charge.