The Global Climate Summit, taking place this week in San Francisco, will highlight bold climate initiatives by countries, states, cities, civil society groups, and businesses, all mobilized in common cause to address climate change and work to fulfill the historic Paris Agreement. It is a forum where bold, innovative ideas and collaboration will take center stage, a fresh escape from the mayhem and reckless policy coming from the Trump West Wing.
But what does the Global Climate Summit reveal about our climate’s future? Can the international order stamp out our biggest existential challenge when the world’s largest economic power and the second largest greenhouse gas emitter has recklessly exited the game?
Despite the complete abdication of U.S. leadership, there is reason to be cautiously hopeful as market forces and local, state, and global leaders forge ahead toward the clean energy future and economy that will be on display at the Summit. Notably, the biggest loser will be the U.S. as it forgoes innovation and business opportunities along with its leadership.
As part of its mission, the Global Climate Summit will work with nations and stakeholders to accelerate policies and actions to reduce reliance on dirty fuels, which ultimately demands scaling up renewable energy development, sharing clean energy technologies, and eliminating fossil fuels and fossil fuel subsidies. Investing in renewable energy technology offers far more concrete advantages than simple emissions reductions — they have proven to contribute to economic development, decrease consumer energy costs, and improve public health, all the while protecting the environment.
Innovation in renewable energy technologies has advanced in leaps and bounds. While unimaginable even several years ago, huge reductions in the cost of renewable energies now make them as competitive with, if not cheaper than the cost of coal and gas. While Trump’s 30 percent tariff on solar panel imports is crippling the U.S. solar industry (along with thousands of jobs), the industry is thriving as a major job growth sector in China and other places around the world. Numerous countries have scaled up already available technologies to make huge strides in their renewable transitions.
A review of the World Economic Forum’s annual lists of Top 10 new technologies highlights a staggering array of constantly developing technologies that advance a clean energy future. In addition to the more well-known advances in green vehicle technologies, solar systems, and battery storage, the World Economic Forum describes other seemingly Sci Fi-like technology advances. Liquid fuels pulled from sunshine remove CO2 from the air, while simultaneously transforming those carbons into fuel. Transformations in green construction may lead to huge reductions in water and energy use through smart grids and redesigned water systems. The opportunities seem endless. With technological advances, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that renewable energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels worldwide by 2020.
As will be a central discussion at the summit, industry and technology, alone, cannot combat our climate crisis. National policies are crucial. A vast global front has committed to pushing forward with important policies. Through the Global Covenant of mayors, over 9,000 cities and local governments have committed to reducing emissions through measurable initiatives and policies. A growing list of cities and countries throughout the world obtain 100 percent or close to 100 percent of their electricity from renewables. Albania, Costa Rica, Iceland, and Paraguay top the list of countries powered by 100 percent renewable electricity. A report from Stanford/Solutions Project envisions that 139 countries will rely on 100 percent renewable power by 2050, also resulting in creation of an estimated 52 million jobs (to vastly outnumber the 27.7 million lost).
In addition to the international community, local, state, and regional coalitions in the U.S. have committed to the global effort to transition to a clean energy future, and the trends are exciting. Over 80 American cities have adopted 100 percent clean energy goals; five cities already generate 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources.
Many states are also enacting ambitious climate policies. Last week, California policymakers signed legislation to mandate 100 percent of its electricity from renewable and zero carbon sources by 2045. California has already achieved reductions beyond 2020 targets, with a corresponding 3 percent growth in GDP along with 1.3 million new jobs.
In light of dismal federal policies, states, including those led by Republicans, have also turned to ballot measures to advance climate priorities, and voters will see a surge in state environmental ballot initiatives in the upcoming November election. Among the upcoming proposals, Washington state voters will evaluate a carbon tax. Arizona and Nevada voters will decide on proposals that would require utilities to generate at least 50 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030. A Colorado measure would ban hydraulic fracturing, and a Florida measure would block offshore drilling in opposition to a recent effort by the Trump administration to reopen offshore drilling.
In addition to pledges and commitments, state coalitions play a crucial role in fighting the Trump administration assault on Obama era regulations targeting CO2. Last week, NY, along with 23 other State Attorneys Generalbrought suit in federal court to oppose the EPA’s efforts to rescind the Clean Power Plan, which targets emissions at fossil fuel plants.
It is telling that the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of conservatives and business leaders, is also seeking ways to transition to a clean energy future, rejecting the Trump administration’s radical denial of climate change. Looking to market solutions to reduce carbon emissions, the Climate Leadership Council just released the Exceeding Paris Plan. Co-authored by former Republican Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz, the plan provides for carbon pricing to use the market to account for the externality costs in fossil fuels, encourage investment in energy efficiency, and replace fossil fuels with clean energy.
Notwithstanding the promise for economic development, lower energy costs, public health, and jobs, the Trump administration’s anti-climate efforts are stymying the needed transition to a clean energy future. The administration’s focus appears to be propping up the dying coal industry, rather than investing in ways to retrain coal workers. Yet, the coal industry is dying and will not be coming back.
These misguided policies will have long-term consequences, slowing a U.S. clean energy transition. A new study prepared for the Global Climate Summit concludes that in spite of the progress taking place, local and regional commitments may not be enough without a national commitment to reach the U.S. original Paris Agreement goals. In the long-term, the U.S. risks losing its competitive and innovative edge to China (which has already taken the lead as the undisputed renewable growth leader) and others.
In the end, history will not be kind to the Trump administration’s short-sighted, dirty fuel policies. Without a doubt, the efforts of this Global Climate Summit and other international collaborations are noble, laudable, exciting, and crucial. With the advances in technology and the growing commitment of governments throughout the world, they might even work - Trump administration or not.
Tracy Stein, J.D., is a board member of Earth Day Initiative and works with her town’s sustainability advisory board. She is also a researcher for Lawyers for Good Government.