How the U.S. Became the Top Climate Leader — Despite Trump’s Denialism

Matti Rautkivi and Michael Levitin

Europeans prefer to view themselves as sober climate realists — as the world’s most committed actors when it comes to fighting climate change. They pride themselves on leading global treaties like the Paris accord and decry Trump’s announcement that America will pull out. So it’s more than a little ironic when the continent that seemed to be steering the process is, in fact, lagging badly behind America — even as a climate change–denier occupies the White House and dinosaur conservative lawmakers continue to ignore the crisis and the policies required to deal with it.

Despite Trump’s reckless dismissal of recent dire warnings from the IPCC and 13 federal agencies predicting the disastrous impacts of accelerated climate change — increased droughts, fires, super storms and floods; mass crop failure and water scarcity, and hundreds of millions of people displaced by rising seas; and projected costs of more than $500 billion annually to the U.S. economy alone — the U.S. managed to slash its CO2 emissions by 42 million tons in 2016–’17. It was the largest cut of any nation. By contrast, in the same period, the E.U. increased its CO2 emissions by 43 million tons — the world’s fourth-highest rise, behind China (120 million tons), India (93 million tons) and Turkey (45 million tons). From 2014 to 2017, U.S. emissions fell by 5%, while E.U. emissions grew by 3%.

Going back to the 1997 Kyoto protocol, and up until just a few years ago, Europe was considered the boldest decision maker when it came to setting carbon-cutting goals; as former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in 2014: “No player in the world is as ambitious as the E.U.” How did the tables turn so quickly on Europe’s clean energy leaders? It’s certainly not the result of climate-friendly policies advanced by team Trump or the Republicans. Instead, it’s economics, plain and simple: American utilities, investors and energy companies understood last decade that coal no longer makes long-term financial sense due to price-competitive alternatives, so they jumped on the low-cost gas and renewables train to move a greater share of the U.S. economy toward cleaner power. The country has since seen a raft of coal plant closures and a flood of cheap gas and renewables enter the market. Which is to say that emissions regulations didn’t drive the change — money did. In the process, the industry has saved consumers money, lowered emissions and laid the groundwork for a more sustainable energy future.

In 2017, we suggested that Donald Trump could become an “accidental climate hero” thanks to the rapid replacement of coal with renewables and gas. We didn’t think our prediction would bear out this quickly. But as the U.S. climate delegation reveals its numbers this week in Poland at COP24 — a follow-up to the Paris accords — it will be hard to argue against Trump’s hands-off, free-market strategy that has done more than Europe’s regulatory and subsidy framework to fight climate change. America’s clean-energy transition was already well underway when Trump took office; between 2014 and 2017, 34 Gigawatts of coal-fired power plants were retired, assisted though not driven by Obama-era tax credits for wind and solar projects. Now, a record-breaking 16 Gigawatts of coal plants have been taken offline in the U.S. this year alone, the equivalent of powering 12 million homes, while the country’s overall coal power emissions have fallen by one-third since 2010.

The big question Europeans must now ask is: Why aren’t we doing the same? What is preventing Germany, for instance, the world’s former leader on renewable power, from shuttering more coal facilities? Lost jobs (and the subsequent political consequences) are one reason. Just look at the violent “yellow vest” protests engulfing France, where President Emmanuel Macron was forced to back down this week on a proposed fuel tax to combat climate change. When it comes to reducing fossil fuel use, the public appears to prefer the economic carrot over the regulatory stick.

Cutting a deal on a global carbon tax would be the best, most effective way to speed the planet towards goals of reaching 100% renewables and limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, as laid out in the Paris accord. This kind of mechanism is needed, though it could raise energy costs on consumers in the short-term and therefore be politically damaging. But implementing the measure won’t happen at COP24 because, for one, the U.S. won’t sign the deal — and without the U.S. on board, China, India, the E.U. and others would face a competitive disadvantage.

So where do we go from here? E.U. and world leaders would be advised to study the U.S. model that has, on its own economic merits, succeeded in slashing CO2. In the absence of a carbon tax, European climate negotiators need to reckon with the fact that America, for all its anti-climate bluster, has figured something out. It’s in everyone’s interest to follow its lead.

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