The good news is that a President Donald Trump could not stop the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. That trend is irreversible.
The bad news is that he could probably slow it enough to destroy the modest chance the world now has to avoid catastrophic warming in the wake of the Paris climate agreement.
Trump has pledged to increase fossil fuel production, while he has disdained clean energy. For instance, he told the red-sweatered Kenneth Bone in the second presidential debate: “There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country.” Not. And not.
The clean energy revolution is unstoppable because of underlying global market, policy, and technological trends. Even as president, Trump couldn’t reverse those trends — he couldn’t stop the inevitable triumph of solar, wind, efficiency (such as LED lightbulbs), advanced batteries, and electric vehicles.
That’s clear from the astonishing learning (or experience) curves the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently released:
No one can stop the clean energy future because it has already arrived. And ongoing large-scale investments by other countries, especially China, ensure the trends will continue.
But by promoting dirty energy and throttling back on clean energy, Trump could slow it down significantly. The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report in 2000 on this point, offering “a general message to policy makers”:
If we want cost-efficient, CO2-mitigation technologies available during the first decades of the new century, these technologies must be given the opportunity to learn in the current marketplace. Deferring decisions on deployment will risk lock-out of these technologies, i.e., lack of opportunities to learn will foreclose these options making them unavailable to the energy system.
Today’s deployment policies determine what technologies will be scalable climate solutions in the coming years.
The IEA pointed out that for technology like solar:
The time of break-even depends on deployment rates, which the decision-maker can influence through policy. With historical annual growth rates of 15 percent, photovoltaic modules will reach break-even point around the year 2025. Doubling the rate of growth will move the break-even point 10 years ahead to 2015.
The rate of deployment did speed up — thanks especially to Germany and China. That’s why we’re already seeing unsubsidized solar power beat coal and gas in many locations.
At the same time, since the U.S. is one of the world’s biggest producers and consumers of clean energy, what we do matters.
If a President Trump started favoring fossil fuels while dialing back clean energy efforts, it would slow the clean energy transition globally and undermine the ability of U.S. companies to complete globally.
Even worse, if we slow clean energy deployment, then we will undermine the global effort agreed to in Paris last year to keep carbon pollution below catastrophic levels. After all, we are the world’s second biggest carbon polluter (after China). The world can’t win this fight if we sit out the battle.
Unfortunately, Trump has been clear he’ll do everything in his power to undermine clean energy — both here and globally. He’s said he would work to kill both the Paris climate agreement and EPA’s carbon pollution standards for existing utilities, the Clean Power Plan.
Putting aside how hard it might be to actually fulfill those promises, there’s little doubt the president can slow the transition. Before Justice Scalia died, the Supreme Court suspended the Clean Power Plan. So the next president gets to pick judges who will determine the final fate of that plan and other key laws.
And by appointing fossil fuel advocates throughout the executive branch, a President Trump could further hinder clean energy, while expanding the advantages fossil fuels already enjoy.
The president also appoints the people who run the agencies that help promote foreign trade and development, which can also make a big difference in how quickly or slowly countries like India adopt clean energy over coal.
The first debate made clear Trump’s disdain for government efforts to advance solar energy. “She talks about solar panels,” Trump said. “We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster. They lost plenty of money on that one.” Yes, his claims are wildly misleading, but the mere fact he holds such views is worrisome.
The clean energy revolution is unstoppable. But keeping total warming “well below 2°C” and avoiding catastrophe as the world committed to in Paris requires a great increase in clean energy investment and deployment.
The tragedy of a Trump presidency is that it could shut the door on the below-2°C path just as the rest of the world was working together to pry that door open.