Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Paris climate treaty has been condemned worldwide. It means one of the world’s two largest carbon polluters has abandoned the global effort to tackle climate change.
Although it will take the US three and a half years to formally withdraw from the treaty, Trump has announced that all efforts to implement it will end immediately.
His move strengthens efforts by climate deniers and big polluting companies everywhere to avoid action in order to keep pumping out more emissions.
Five Coalition MPs called on the Australian government to follow Trump, including Craig Kelly, the chair of the Coalition’s environment and energy committee.
But many governments who are dragging their heels on climate change also criticised Trump. Malcolm Turnbull opposed his decision, while his government prepares a $1 billion loan to help Adani build Australia’s largest coal mine.
Even big business in the US was strongly critical of Trump’s move.
Some companies think they can make money out of renewable energy, like battery manufacturer Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk.
But oil companies including Exxon and ConocoPhillips also called on Trump to stick with the Paris deal. This is not because they support an end to the use of fossil fuels. Exxon CEO Darren Woods noted that under the Paris deal, demand for oil would keep increasing.
The fossil fuel companies also see the Paris agreement as a way of avoiding any action on climate change that might damage their profits. ConocoPhillips appealed to Trump to remain part of the deal by arguing, “It gives the US the ability to participate in future climate discussions to safeguard its economic and environmental best interests”.
The Paris agreement will not deliver the kind of action needed to halt dangerous climate change. It is based on voluntary, non-binding pledges by individual countries to cut their emissions, with no penalties for those that fail to do so.
As a result the pledges under the Paris deal will lock in global warming of between 2.7 and 4 degrees. Yet the deal itself noted the need to keep warming to 1.5 degrees—the point where a number of Pacific island nations will begin to disappear.
The mayors of almost 200 US cities declared they would continue to support the Accord, and take their own actions to reduce emissions.
Many businesses have also jumped on board. In the last two years, over 50 per cent of all power generation installed globally came from renewable energy. The cost of installing solar PV has fallen by half and wind energy by two-thirds since 2009. And this trend is set to continue.
This has led some to believe that the free market will soon have us on track for a 100 per cent renewable energy future, even without government subsidies.
In his response to Trump’s decision, former US President Barack Obama claimed, “the private sector already chose a low-carbon future… the Paris Agreement opened the floodgates for businesses, scientists, and engineers to unleash high-tech, low-carbon investment and innovation on an unprecedented scale.”
But the World Energy Council, attached to the UN, estimates that fossil fuels will still provide between 50 and 70 per cent of global power by 2060. To have any hope of avoiding dangerous warming, the world needs to stop burning fossil fuels entirely well before this.
Australia currently draws 17.3 per cent of its power from renewable energy, and most of this is decades-old hydro power like the Snowy Mountains scheme.
The Finkel review, released in June, outlines plans to reduce energy emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030, the target Australia tabled at Paris. This leaves unexplained how emissions from other sources like transport would be reduced. And even by 2050 almost 30 per cent of Australia’s power would still come from coal and gas.
Scaling up to 100 per cent renewable energy requires building large solar thermal power plants, with storage technology that can produce power 24 hours a day.
This is currently more expensive than rooftop solar panels, or coal and gas power plants. That means it cannot be left to the market and private investors to build it.
What we need is government funding to build renewable energy on a massive scale. Alongside this there must be planning to end emissions from cars, trucks and all forms of transport, both through the expansion of public transport and a shift to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.
Trump has set back the fight to save the climate. But the governments that signed the Paris deal, and the corporations behind them, are not the answer either. It will require a mass movement to fight for the action we need.
By James Supple