For most of the year, environmentalists, particularly those working on climate change, were in a triumphant mood. The Paris Agreement signed in the French capital in December last year had triggered an unprecedented momentum that saw the world take one important step after the other to fight climate change. It required the Paris Agreement barely ten months to get the minimum number of ratifications required to enable its entry into force. It was the fastest operationalisation of any international agreement of this size and scope.
In between, countries also approved a landmark amendment to the Montreal Protocol, enabling this 1997 ozone-saving arrangement to oversee a phase-down of extremely dangerous hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases that are known to be hundreds to thousands of times more harmful than carbon dioxide in warming the earth’s atmosphere. This decision, which aims at eliminating about 90 per cent of all HFC use by the year 2050, could turn out to be the single most important action against climate change with a potential to shave off as much as 0.5 degree of global temperature rise by the year 2100.
Then, in early October, a large number of countries even agreed to voluntarily curb the rise of emissions from international aviation from the year 2020. International aviation emissions, contributing roughly two per cent of global emissions, are not covered by the Paris Agreement and, thus, required a separate arrangement under the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
The world seemed to be getting itself seriously equipped to fight climate change. That was until Donald Trump surprised everyone by getting elected as the next President of the United States. The results came when the annual climate change conference was going on, this time in Marrakesh, Morocco. Many at that conference were actually in tears. Having called climate change a ‘Chinese hoax’ during the campaign trail and promised to walk out of the Paris Agreement, Trump truly could undo all the hard work that has gone into stitching together a global climate agreement that seeks to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 2 degree compared pre-industrial times, which science says is a must to prevent catastrophic and irreversible impacts of climate change.
It was feared that walking out of the Paris Agreement would be among the first announcements made by Trump post his election. That, thankfully, did not happen. Trump even surprised many by saying, during an interaction with journalists of the New York Times a few days later, that there could be ‘some connectivity’ between climate change and human activities.
But the possibility that he could rethink his climate change beliefs were belied. The appointments of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — who once described climate change as an “engineering problem” with “engineering solutions” — as Secretary of State, and Scott Pruitt as head of the US Environment Protection Agency, made it amply clear what his administration’s line of thinking on climate change could be.
It is possible that Trump may eventually not take the United States out of the Paris Agreement. But that, in itself, may not mean much. Considering the extraordinary international effort that is required to make available adequate finance and technology, the two most crucial resources in the fight against climate change, the world probably needed an activist US President to galvanise global action. Trump seems to be on the opposite side of the spectrum. Even if it does not walk out, a non-enthusiastic United States can cause terminal damage to the process by just not doing enough.
The weight of inaction can become a big drag on the implementation of the Paris Agreement and render it completely meaningless even without the US taking the drastic step of leaving it altogether.
Many people, however, have some hope in Trump’s business instincts. The fight against climate change offers one of its kind business opportunities across the world. Investments worth hundreds of billions, probably trillions of dollars are required in areas like renewable energy, new and cleaner technologies, transport, and urban rejuvenation. Some of these, like renewable energy, have already emerged as one of the fastest growing sectors in the last couple of years.
A large number of American companies are also in race for these investment opportunities. In fact, many American companies already have huge investments in different areas of the world for the next 30-40 years. A global slowdown in these sectors triggered by US inaction could put these investments to risk. Trump is nothing if not a successful and astute businessman. He has more friends in the business than in politics.
It is possible that Trump might still turn sympathetic towards climate change — for reasons of business rather than environment.