Yesterday’s US election result signals an end to the steady progression of US climate action. What it leaves is a vacancy for leadership on this major challenge of our time. And the UK is in a strong position to be at the vanguard of the effort to fill it.
A backward step for US climate action
The election of Donald Trump is undoubtedly a backward step for US climate action. He is a high profile climate denier and his pre-election promises, if followed through, would see the US reversing the Paris climate agreement and increasing the use of dirty coal, amongst a range of broader inward looking policies.
This is in contrast to the Obama administration which, over the past eight years, has pursued increasing national and international climate ambitions, culminating in the historic signing of the Paris agreement and the development of a national plan of action to meet its commitments.
President Obama has recognised the global market opportunity and the momentum that the agreement creates. With major developed and developing economies having ratified the Paris agreement, the investment potential, and the new opening to export low carbon skills and knowledge to a burgeoning low carbon market, is huge. Renewables have gathered significant momentum, with generation capacity now greater than coal worldwide, and approximately £1.3 trillion is expected to be spent globally on low carbon power, energy efficiency and carbon capture technology by 2030.
Donald Trump’s position means, at least at the national level, he will take his country out of this increasingly lucrative market and remove the US as one of the leading global low carbon drivers.
The US-sized hole can be filled
Alongside the major developed and developing countries’ climate commitments however, we’ve seen US states and cities independently creating their own ever higher climate goals. So actions are already underway that will limit the size of the hole in global climate leadership. But to truly bridge the gap requires strong climate diplomacy from an existing climate leader.
The UK could see this as a major opportunity. In the light of Brexit it will need to be increasingly outward looking, and it has a long and strong track record on which it could build. It was the first country to set a legally binding goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first to announce a date to end unabated coal and the first to establish an investment bank dedicated to the green economy.
And Theresa May’s government is giving early signals that it sees the opportunity, committing to ratify the Paris climate agreement, setting its 5th carbon budget and, yesterday, providing much needed policy certainty on renewables and coal phase out. It also has a new carbon plan and a low carbon, resource efficient industrial strategy in development which will enable it to tackle the next big challenges of heat and transport.
If this government is bold in its policies it could see significant benefits for the UK. Clearer policy on renewables could mobilise nearly £47 billion of investment from 2021 to 2026, tens of thousands of jobs could be supported across every region, and action to insulate more of our homes could help to cut the 44,000 excess winter deaths annually caused by cold, inefficient homes.
The export potential is equally significant, and the UK is already making inroads. Our trade deal with China in 2015 included £2 billion to build emission free buses, and a similar deal with India included £1.2 billion for clean power telecom towers. A third of new clean energy projects worldwide, from 2007 to 2012, had legal and financial advice from the UK.
The long term momentum behind the global low carbon market is clear, but the short term effect of the US pulling back from global climate leadership leaves a hole. Now is the time for the UK to reiterate its commitment to climate action and to be at the vanguard of filling the vacancy the US has left open on the international stage.