August 1, 2019

For those losing sleep during this stifling summer over the very real prospect of human extinction, here’s a sliver of good news: Despite numerous attempts, President Donald Trump has laid only a tiny glove on the U.S. low-carbon power and transportation industries thus far.

With just a third of his term left, time and options are running low for a president who continues to deny climate science while serving as the fossil fuel industry’s Cheerleader-in-Chief.

The latest symptom of Trump’s energy/climate policy impotence came July 25 when four major automakers struck a deal with the state of California on fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, and Honda promised to cut substantially CO2 emissions from their fleets by the mid-2020s. The pact highlighted the Trump administration’s flawed attempt at promulgating far weaker nationwide standards through its Environmental Protection Agency and its refusal to negotiate in good faith a deal with California over the standards.

The upshot is California will effectively set the rules, not just for itself – but for the entire U.S. and Canada too. Other major automakers are expected to follow in joining the agreement. Faced with the prospect of complying with two conflicting sets of emissions rules in one U.S. market, the manufacturers let California lead the way.

From a climate perspective, this is a major deal. Transportation now accounts for the largest share of U.S. CO2 emissions. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards finalized under President Barack Obama had the potential to put transport on the same de-carbonization path that U.S. power has followed over the past decade. If automakers would meet Obama CAFE standards in the years ahead, the U.S. might actually meet its economy-wide CO2 cuts promised under the 2015 Paris Agreement.  Without them, forget about it.

The California deal is important for two other reasons as well.  It highlights the growing importance of U.S. states in dictating policies supporting CO2 reductions (more on this later). While environmental groups note that California actually weakened its earlier standards somewhat to get the four automakers on board, there is little doubt that California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols ultimately trumped Trump by inking the deal.

The other reason is that the agreement marks the latest and biggest setback to Trump’s efforts to defend incumbents in the power and transportation sectors against what he regards as harmful regulations, but what are really just market forces accompanied by ambitious upstart firms exploiting them. The administration may yet have a few energy/climate policy plans up its sleeve before the end of Trump’s term, but its options at this point appear limited. Congress, now half-controlled by Democrats, will be little help. With Trump on the ballot in November 2020 for re-election, time may be running out.

Adding it all up 

It could be argued that net-net, the “Trump effect” on U.S. de-carbonization has been neutral. On the one hand, he pursued a slew of policies that would have slowed CO2 cuts. On the other, he generally failed to implement them successfully. Along the way, he proved to be such a divisive character that he galvanized states to take climate matters more into their own hands through unprecedented action.

Netting out both sides of the ledger is close to impossible, but just for argument’s sake, let’s say that in the 2.5 years since Trump took office, the U.S. has essentially run in place when it comes to addressing the climate challenge. In other words, it could have been far worse.

If so, so what? The clock is ticking ever faster and louder on the climate crisis. There is no time for the world’s largest economy and second-largest CO2 emitter to do anything other than make substantial progress.  The window to take action is rapidly closing.

In other words, better than bad has definitely not been good enough.

Ethan Zindler
Head of Americas                           

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