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The Trump carbon bump: Climate crime or misdemeanor?

The Trump carbon bump: Climate crime or misdemeanor?
© Greg Nash

As Congress decides whether President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE’s actions regarding Ukraine and the Bidens’ constitute impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors,” other presidential acts are also raising serious concerns on climate. 

The international climate community, currently meeting in Madrid for COP 25, will try its best to manage the fallout from the president’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. 

However, recent data points to a new, tangible and potentially more severe climate challenge: global energy emissions are once again on the rise, driven in part by President Trump’s policies.

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These policies, and the bump in emissions they have helped to create (what can be called a “Trump carbon bump”), do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. They are Presidential policy preferences, but for many voters, they likely also constitute a crime against the climate they think  justifies his removal from office next election. 

The International Energy Agency reported last month that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy rose 0.6 gigatons in 2018, which followed on a smaller increase in 2017. 

The U.S. contributed 25 percent of this 2018 rise and China 40 percent. In contrast, global emissions had remained essentially flat for the three years beginning in 2014. 

While many things changed between 2014 and 2018, one of the most significant for climate was the inauguration of Donald Trump as president pledging to promote fossil fuels and weaken controls on CO2 emissions.

The results are now in from his initial years as president and we are seeing a definite bump in carbon emissions, one which is attributable at least in part to three of his most visible policies that are driving greater fossil use domestically and abroad.

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These policies involve: domestic oil, coal and gas; international oil prices; and trade with China. 

From loosening restrictions on oil drilling, weakening fuel economy standards, and variety of other regulatory changes and pointed statements by the president, this administration has embarked on a concerted campaign to promote fossil fuel production and use in the U.S. And it is producing results.   

Energy use rose in 2018, driven by oil and particularly natural gas, even as coal use continued to fall (notwithstanding the president’s efforts). 

Although the resurgence in oil and gas dates from the Obama administration has accelerated under President Trump who has aggressively promoted fossil fuels without any climate reservation. The result is that U.S. CO2 emissions rose in 2018 for the first time since 2014, and though they appear to have fallen in 2019, they remain higher than when President Trump took office. 

Second, the president has repeatedly pressured Saudi Arabia and other countries to increase their petroleum production to drive international oil prices below $60 and thereby keep gasoline prices here in the U.S. under $3. 

This price point benefits various consumers, but also promotes the market for specifically SUVs that have become the second largest contributor to the global increase in CO2 emissions and whose emissions may rise even further with the weakened fuel economy standards being promoted by the president.

This pressure to lower international oil prices also buttresses gasoline consumption abroad, lowers the appeal of energy efficiency investments and reduces the competitiveness of renewables, all of which undermine efforts to reduce emissions. 

There are alternatives to the president’s oil price preference that can keep energy costs affordable. For example, greater fuel efficiency standards for SUVs, which also would promote innovation, but the president is uninterested in this type of emissions-reducing option. 

Third, the administration’s trade policy towards China is also having an impact (albeit, indirect and less predictable) on that country’s emissions. The U.S.-China trade war has exacerbated economic and energy security anxieties in China, the world’s largest emitter. 

As economic growth in China has slowed, weakened in part by the trade war, the Chinese government has pushed industrial output, which is both energy and carbon intensive. One result is that China’s coal use increased in both 2017 and 2018 following several years of decline as coal-consuming industries increased its activity. This rise in coal use was the largest contributor to the 2018 increase in China’s emissions. Natural gas and oil consumption also grew.

A senior Chinese government official commented: “External elements, such as the Sino-U.S. trade war, have brought negative impacts and increasing uncertainties to the global economy, which has also made it more difficult for China to tackle climate change.”

As an international China expert explained “The problem is that the [Chinese] government tries to stimulate the economy because it fears slowdowns.... But this just leads to higher energy consumption from resource intensive industries such as construction” — and, in turn, this pushes up emissions. 

While China’s CO2 energy emissions had been dropping following a peak in 2013, they have now risen to a new all-time high, in part fueled by anxieties flowing from the U.S.-China trade war.

President Trump’s efforts to promote fossil fuel use and soften greenhouse gas controls seem to be working as global emissions are once again increasing, and the rise that began in 2017 after he took office appears to be extending into 2019. While the last several months have brought to light possible impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” for Congress to consider, on the climate front, they have also revealed a “Trump carbon bump” that for many voters might constitute a reason in and of itself for change at the next election. 

Philippe Benoit is currently an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and was previously Division Head, Energy Environment, at the International Energy Agency.