2016 was a happy year for environmentalists — until November, when Donald J Trump, self-confessed climate change denier, won the White House and busted the party. The Paris Agreement of December 2015 gave unprecedented momentum to the fight against climate change. In barely 10 months, the Agreement got the minimum number of ratifications required for it to come into force — the fastest operationalisation of any international agreement of its size and scope.
In between, countries approved a landmark amendment to the Montreal Protocol, enabling this 1997 ozone-saving arrangement to oversee a phasedown of the 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.
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The decision, which aims at eliminating about 90% of all HFC use by 2050, could be the single most important action against climate change, with a potential to shave off 0.5 degrees of global temperature rise by 2100.
Then, in early October, a large number of countries agreed to voluntarily curb, from 2020, the rise of emissions from international aviation. Aircraft emissions, contributing roughly 2% of global emissions, are not covered by the Paris Agreement, and required a separate arrangement under the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
Riding on all these successes, the world seemed to be getting itself seriously equipped to fight climate change. Until Trump surprised everyone by getting elected as the next President of the United States.
The election results came in the middle of the annual climate change conference in Marrakesh, Morocco. Many at the conference were in tears. Trump had called climate change a “Chinese hoax” during the campaign, and had promised to tear up the Paris Agreement. He could undo all the hard work that had gone into stitching together a global climate agreement that seeks to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees from pre-industrial times, which science says is essential to prevent catastrophic and irreversible impacts of climate change.
It was feared that among Trump’s first announcements after winning the Presidency would be the one about Paris. That, thankfully, did not happen. Trump even surprised many by saying, during an interaction with journalists of The New York Times, that there could be “some connectivity” between climate change and human activities. But hopes that he might be considering rethinking his climate change beliefs were dashed as he appointed 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 (EPA), the very agency Pruitt had sued, and against whose “activist agenda” he claims to be a “leading advocate”.
It is possible that Trump may eventually not take the US 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 end of the spectrum. Even without walking out, the US can cause terminal damage to the process by just being unenthusiastic, or by not doing enough. The weight of inaction can become a huge drag on the implementation of the Paris Agreement, and render it utterly meaningless.
What gives many people hope, however, are Trump’s business instincts. The fight against climate change offers a one-of-its-kind business opportunity worldwide. Investments worth hundreds of billions, probably trillions, of dollars are required in renewable energy, new and cleaner technologies, transport, and urban rejuvenation. Some of these, like renewable energy, are already among the fastest growing areas of investment. A large number of American companies are in line to exploit these opportunities — many have made huge investments across the world for the next 30-40 years. A global slowdown in these sectors triggered by US inaction could put these investments at risk.
Trump is nothing if not an astute businessman. He has more friends in business than in politics. Therein lies hope for the fight against climate change in 2017.