Why climate action won’t die after Trump’s election, by Larissa Basso and Eduardo Viola

The election of Donald Trump has been a source of concern to the climate community. Throughout his campaign, the President has dismissed climate change and spoke of pushing the coal industry back in business. Hours after his inauguration, climate change was deleted from the White House website. He has appointed a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency; an ethno-nationalist founder of the alternative right as Chief Strategy Advisor; a supporter of fossil fuels to the Energy Department; and the CEO of Exxon Mobil to the State Department. On the same token, on January 24 a bill to prohibit the United States contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Green Climate Fund was proposed by a Republican representative in the Parliament [1]. There is a case for much concern, as the United States is a major climate power; if its emissions are not consistently reduced the problem will not be solved. In addition, Trump’s populist neo-nationalism will increase conflict in the international system, and decarbonization requires strong international cooperation. Yet, precluded economic and security confrontation between USA and China, Trump’s effect will be mitigated by changing dynamics in energy markets, China’s growing leadership in energy decarbonization and strong US states initiatives on reducing emissions.

Climate change and global economy

Climate change is slowly becoming embedded in the global economy. Even if fossil fuels remain the main source of energy worldwide – they answered for 81% of global Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) in 2014 (IEA, 2016, p.37) [2] – investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy are growing. In 2015, USD285.9 billion were invested in renewable energy (excluding large hydropower projects) in general, and USD265.8 billion in renewable power capacity (FS-UNEP, 2016, p.11). Investments in new coal and gas generation were half of it (USD130 billion, FS-UNEP, 2016, p.11). And 2015 was not an outlier: between 2004 and 2014, the annual amount invested in renewables globally went from USD45 billion to USD270 billion (FS-UNEP, 2015, p.79). It is important to note that oil prices have remained low since 2014 (NASDAQ, 2016). Given that energy infrastructure requires high upfront investment and offers long-term amortization, consistent investment in renewables is an important sign that the technology has gained, and is expected to increase, its share in the energy market. Increasing policy support for renewables – in the beginning of 2015, 164 countries had targets for renewable energy deployment (FS-UNEP, 2015, p.87) – has an important role on it.

China is showing important leadership in energy decarbonization. The country has been investing massively in renewables: in 2015, USD102.9 billion – 36% of the global total – were invested in expanding renewable capacity in China (FS-UNEP, 2016, p.15). In the same year, for the first time, China matched Europe’s spending on renewables Research and Development (R&D), USD 2.8billion (FS-UNEP, 2016, p.73). Chinese companies became leaders in the solar panels market, and they have an important share of wind energy market as well. China’s leadership in energy decarbonization is related both to its ambition increase its soft power (NYE, 2004) and to its domestic challenges: the pollution problem became too serious to be ignored and could threaten the stability of the Communist regime if not tackled – the second variable is more important than the first one. Although China remains highly dependent on coal for electricity and oil imports reach records every year, it has enacted many policy mechanisms supporting its transition to a low carbon economy, comparing to Northern Europe, California, Washington and British Columbia. China has also launched a nation-wide emissions trading system, after successful results of seven pilot schemes established in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Hubei, and Chongqing. However, if the Trump administration policy becomes confrontational to China both in trade and security, as he has promised in the electoral campaign and the transition period (significant probability), the dynamics in China could change dramatically. Confrontation with the US would strength the nationalist sectors of Chinese elites and weaken the globalist ones. It would undermine global decarbonization efforts since most countries would adopt nationalist policies, increase defense expending, and become obsessed with energy security, which would favor still abundant coal instead of low carbon energy.

US domestic policy

In several very important US States, predominant views on climate change are opposite from Trump’s administration – and it is important to remember that the United States is a federation in which the states have substantial autonomy from the federal government. Between 2000 and 2014, 33 US States and the District of Columbia have decoupled their economic growth from carbon emissions (BROOKINGS, 2016). The shale gas revolution (but not shale oil that is extremely dirty) has an important role in this change, as well as the changing structure of states’ economies, more and more centered around service industry and innovation (BROOKINGS, 2016). But the policy push has been key: 34 states and the District of Columbia have completed climate action plans (C2ES, 2016). Ambition of climate action varies. California, for example, has targeted to reduce emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and established specific targets to comply with it: increase renewable electricity production to 50%, reduce oil use in vehicles by 50%, double energy efficiency savings in buildings, reduce emissions from natural and working lands and reduce short-lived climate pollutants (CALIFORNIA, 2016). A Californian cap-and-trade system is in place since 2012. Other states have similar targets and schemes, and some have even started to discuss a carbon tax: in the state of Washington, initiative 732 – to impose a carbon emission tax on the sale or use of certain fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-generated electricity – was rejected in the November 2016 ballot, but by a small margin.

The election of Trump is extremely bad news for climate change and his administration can harm a great deal the progress that have been made in recent years. But it will not stagnate climate action in the world beyond some period. Science has advanced enough to prove that human beings are dangerously impacting the climate and several cases prove that economic growth can be decoupled from emissions. Policy has pushed investments and new industries were created; new technologies are being developed. Yet, the world is still far from solving the issue: emissions are growing fast and dangerous climate instability is very likely to take place. A lot more needs to be done, and it could be done faster if the current US federal administration understood the seriousness of climate change. Worst case scenario, decarbonization efforts will be resumed after some stagnation, unfortunately under a more limited carbon budget. But the current transition to a global low carbon economy is a fact – no “alternative facts” can deny or stop it.


[1] Available at <https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/673>

[2] Own calculation based on balances presented in the publication.


BROOKINGS (2016): Report Growth, carbon, and Trump: State progress and drift on economic growth and emissions decoupling. Available at <https://www.brookings.edu/research/growth-carbon-and-trump-state-progress-and-drift-on-economic-growth-and-emissions-decoupling/#footref-2>, access 28 Jan 2017.

CALIFORNIA (2016): California Climate Change Portal. Available at <http://climatechange.ca.gov/>, access 28 Jan 2017.

C2ES (2016): Climate Action Plans, database. Available at <https://www.c2es.org/us-states-regions/policy-maps/climate-action-plans>, access 30 Jan 2017.

FS-UNEP (2015): Renewables Global Status Report 2015. Available at <http://www.ren21.net/status-of-renewables/global-status-report/>, access 20 Jul 2015.

FS-UNEP (2016): Report Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investments 2016. Available at < http://fs-unep-centre.org/publications/global-trends-renewable-energy-investment-2016>, access 28 Jan 2017.

IEA (2016): Key World Energy Statistics 2016. Available at <https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2016.pdf>, access 25 Nov 2016.

NASDAQ (2016): End of day Commodity Futures Price Quotes for Crude Oil WTI (NYMEX), 03-year comparison, database. Available at <http://www.nasdaq.com/markets/crude-oil.aspx#ixzz4XMG2N7zz>, access 30 Jan 2017.

NYE, Joseph (2004). Soft power: the means to succeed in world politics. New Yok, Public Affairs.

 About the authors

Larissa Basso is a PhD Candidate and member of the International system at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília, as well as a Visiting Scholar at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California San Diego (larissabasso@gmail.com>).

Eduardo Viola is a Full Professor and coordinator of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília (eduviola@gmail.com).

How to cite this article

Editoria Mundorama. "Why climate action won’t die after Trump’s election, by Larissa Basso and Eduardo Viola". Mundorama - Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais,. [Acessado em 16/01/2019]. Disponível em: <http://www.mundorama.net/?p=22933>.
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