Climate change policies in the U.S – Will Trump affect Obama’s legacy?

By Vinny Davis

US President-elect Donald Trump’s stand on climate and energy policies is expected to open up new debates on outgoing President Barack Obama’s ambitious climate change programmes.

The euphoria post the Paris agreement is giving way to skepticism with the US, a frontrunner in the deal, facing a test of its legitimacy. The recently concluded COP 22 Marakkech was momentous not for getting the nations to sign the Paris agreement legislation, but for Trump’s purported stance on affecting the climate legacy of Obama.

With the newly electedUS President considering climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, his list of appointments to top administrative posts does not provide a bright picture. The failure of the Paris agreement to define to what extent each country will reduce its emissions in order to limit global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius and its lack of a legally binding nature put the future of the deal itself in doubt.Even if the US does not retract from the agreement, it need not comply with its proposed nationally determined contributions. The US had pledged to reduce its emissions by 26–28 per cent from the 2005 levels by 2025. The Obama administration has disbursed $500 million from its pledge of $3 billion to the $100-billion Green Climate Fund (GCF). Till date, GCF has been able to pool in a meagre $10 billion only.Hence, this is one area that maybe first given the axe under Trump. The US being the second largest energy consumer and the second largest emitter globally, the spill over effects of a non-compliance with its climate pledges are expected to affect the decisions of other nations and thereby threaten the status of the deal.

As part of the Climate Action Plan, Barack Obama’s mission to reduce the carbon footprint of the US had few interesting takeaways. The Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution set carbon pollution standards for power plants at less than 32 per centfrom the 2005 levels by 2030. The fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles, medium and heavy duty trucks intended to avoideightbillion tons of carbon emissions by 2025 and the energy conservation standards aimed to reduce 2.5 billion metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030. The reduction in the federal government’s Green House Gases (GHG)by 17 per cent coupled with the aim to reduce emissions by 40 per centfrom the 2008 levels by 2030 is another scheme. Such grandiose proposals came at the cost of industry houses in the US, and Trump has already placed energy as a key priority in his economic plans. A slew of executive actions was employed by Obama to enforce many regulations.The new President may also use the same tactic to tweak or delay the existing rules and regulations, or even slash Congress funding for their enforcement, as a legal rollback is unlikely.

Coal is the largest source of carbon emission in the US, constituting 71 per cent of the total carbon emissions. The aim to reduce carbon emissions and other toxic air pollutants from coal-fired plants comes at the cost of pushing them out of existence, when more than 30 per cent of electricity requirements in the US are coal based. Though upgrading of such utilities is the need of the hour, it will lead to an increase in the costs of power. The closure of plants will accentuate job losses. Even the costs to comply with such regulations are nearly $300 billion from 2022 to 2033. Therefore, the coal industry is losing to the steady inroads made by the shale industry, notwithstanding the environmental constraints and low efficiency. The declining coal production figures (from 1171 million tons in 2008 to 897 million tons now) will have consequences in the employment market. But it is here that shale comes to rescue.

Trump has vowed to do away with the regulations on oil and gas based industries that deter production in oil and gas fields. This is at a time when large oil companies are flushing out huge sums in fracking technology to increase its production. In 2015, the production soared to 4.5 million barrels per day from 102,000 barrels per day in 2000, constituting about 50 per cent of the total oil output in the US.To deal with this supply glut and its resultant low prices, OPEC’s latest decision to impose production cuts augurs well for oil prices, which is now at $55 per barrel. But this price hike is a blessing in disguise for the shale producers in the US to produce more and herald an oil boom. Considering the business interests of Trump, no action will be taken to deter the oil and natural gas producers from making profits. The fact that energy related carbon emissions were 12 per cent lower from the levels of 2005, due to increasing share of natural gas over coal for electricity generation, will be a major takeaway to push for more fracking. In all likelihood, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, which were stalled for their environmental impacts by the Obama administration, will be taken up by Trump.Albeit, revamping the existing pipeline infrastructure and ensuring environmental balance will be crucial.

Who are at the helm?

Staunch climate change deniers like Scott Pruitt will be heading the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whilst Rick Perry will be the new Secretary of Energy and Rex Tillerson the new Secretary of State (cabinet agency in charge of the Paris agreement). If Pruitt has a history of suing EPA on its regulations and challenging Obama’s policies,Perry considers ‘climate change as a contrived phony mess’ and Tillerson headed the world’s largest oil and gas company Exxon Mobil, which has been funding lobbyists against climate regulation.

Other major appointees like Michael Flynn(National Security Adviser), Ben Carson (Secretary, Housing andUrban Development), Mike Pompeo (Director, CIA), Tom Price (Secretary, Health and Human Services) Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) and Nikki Haley (Ambassador to the UN) are likely to question the scientific credibility of climate change.

Though the Trump administration recognizes global warming as a global concern, it scientifically disproves the scale of consequences as propagated by the alarmists. The Trump camp is against the precautionary principle that presupposes the potentially dangerous effects deriving from a phenomenon and imposes arbitrary regulations to deal with it, and views it as an excuse for similar regulations on the usage of fossil fuels globally.

A tussle between growth and regulation can be expected in the domain of climate change, as the Trump camp considers energy as a major driver of economic growth. However, a recent study by the Brookings reveals that the US GDP (2000–2015) recorded 30 per cent growth simultaneously when emissions declined by 10 per cent. The role of technology in sustaining economic growth even with regulations is a positive sign.Technological breakthroughs helped improve the research and development of alternative sources of energy. The spurt in shale, low carbon technologies and renewables – carbon capture and storage technologies, solar, nuclear and wind – is indicative of the positive efforts by the Research and Development wing of the Energy Department.

The upcoming administration can better prioritize such avenues for a sustainable future without compromising economic growth.

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Vinny Davis

Vinny Davis is a Managing Associate at the CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies. Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) is a policy think tank established in 2004 working in the areas of Governance, Livelihood, Urbanization, Strategy & Security etc. It conducts research studies, events and interactions on various policy issues. Centre for Public Policy Research has four focus study centres within; Centre for Urban Studies, Centre for Strategic Studies, Centre for Comaprative Studies and CPPR Academy.

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