Finding hope for the climate change movement after Trump’s election

Posted on December 12, 2016 in The Grantham Scholars' Blog, Scholar comment by . Share this article

With little over a month to go until Donald Trump becomes the President of the United States, Grantham Scholar Robert Hardie takes an optimistic look at the future of the climate change movement, looking back on his experiences at COP22 and a recent visit to the Niger Delta.

Grantham Scholars Rob Hardie and Kaisa Pietilä at COP22.

Grantham Scholars Rob Hardie and Kaisa Pietilä at COP22.

“A disaster for climate and a disaster for global equality” were the words in my mind as I headed to Marrakech on behalf of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures for the second week of the UNFCCC COP22.

The outlook for the conference was gloomy. I’d watched in the early hours of 9 November as a political map of the USA gradually turned red, and a man with seemingly no concept of environmental stewardship became the leader of the most powerful country in the world. As a researcher in the field of climate change, this seemed like bad news for the planet, for its people, and maybe for my career.

Visiting the COP22, I had the chance to see how action on climate change is taking place at the global level, and visiting the Niger Delta the week after, I had a chance to see how change is being enacted at the local level. As the weeks progressed, considering the election of Trump and its effect on climate change in this wider context, there seemed to be more cause for hope than despair, and more cause for increased action than disillusionment.

To begin with, the election of Trump shouldn’t overshadow global progress made over recent years in the field of climate change. The Paris Agreement reached in Le Bourget last year united the world in willingness to shift economies to a more sustainable footing. Legislative progress since then has been rapid, with the agreement ratified and put into force in a matter of months – more quickly than even UNFCCC legislation was prepared for. By comparison, the Kyoto Protocol took eight years. The Paris Agreement and its adoption is a symbol of a global shift in collective understanding of climate change, larger than the national movement that produced Trump.

Another symbol of progress so far is the revolution occurring in global energy markets, a topic at the heart of John Kerry’s address to the COP22. The renewable energy sector, he said, has seen a six-fold increase in size in 10 years, driven forward by a precipitous drop in the cost of renewables. In 2015, globally, 90% of new energy was renewable, and increases in renewable energy capacity in China and India have been quicker than expected. This global trend sets to continue, with the transport sector poising itself for a shift towards electric vehicles as battery costs decrease. Indeed, hinted Kerry, it’s market forces that will dictate progress on climate change over the coming years.

Progress wasn’t just illustrated through legislation and markets, there was evidence at the COP of independent voluntary change, where businesses were competing to show their commitments to action. At a side event, I saw Microsoft promoting their internal carbon pricing scheme, which makes emissions costly to the company, and involves employees in donating the funds generated to external emissions reductions projects. Apple advertised that 90% of their energy is sourced from renewable sources. Even within the US, Tesla will continue to endeavour to define what sustainable business is. It’s clear that international businesses now strongly associate sustainability with innovation, an association unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Another point to note is that international climate finance, whilst burgeoning and nascent, is starting to take shape. Funds earmarked to allow developing countries to adapt to and mitigate climate change are growing and appear to be on track. California, operating with reassuring federal independence in the US, along with nations From Norway to Nigeria are independently moving to create innovative financial instruments that will nudge economies further towards sustainability. This is substantial progress from last year, when there was large uncertainty on questions of climate finance.

For me, such progress outlined at the COP22 was remarkable. Before its closing days, COP21 was defined by uncertainty over what was to be included in the final agreement. This year it was clear that a powerful global movement is already underway.

Whereas this progress is encouraging, caveats exist. The oil and gas industry is still the largest industry on the planet. Economies will continue to be dominated by fossil fuels unless transformations accelerate. Now, collectively, national pledges (NDCS) to the Paris Agreement fall short of global targets, assuming they will be fully implemented right down to the local level. As those working in international development know, pledges are easy to make, but implantation is the real difficulty. Global financial instruments and policies to help implement NDCS fairly, effectively and efficiently are generally lacking in capacity in respect to the task ahead. The COP22 was billed as ‘the COP of action’, but these and other issues are still unresolved, and remain significant barriers to the success of the agreement. To fully reflect the progress made recently at the international level, better links need to be made between ambitious global drives for change and difficult local realities, using new approaches.

In Nigeria, I was lucky to experience what these approaches could look like. I observed a workshop comprised of civil society, government, businesses and academia, working together to develop ideas for a set of sustainable enterprises, in partnership with local communities, using methods and materials local to the area. The core guiding principles of designing the enterprises were the protection of biodiversity, the reduction of economic exclusion and reduction of emissions. Using a partnership approach, diverse skills, expertise and experience were combined to find workable local solutions, conscious of global problems.

Partnerships work when interests are aligned. Enterprising solutions that create local wealth act as common interests, with the power to leverage ever limited public funds to connect with more risk adverse private capital, to achieve large-scale and sustained change that is resilient to political and economic worries.

It is therefore the responsibility of those looking to conserve the environment to engage with different sectors of society, to find and communicate common interests, in a common language of values. This way, expertise can be combined to achieve more than each sector can achieve independently, and change can be effected more powerfully than the destructive environmental values of individuals. Achieving this level of cooperation can catalyse the rapid progress of recent years, and may mean the difference between disaster and success for the Paris Agreement.