Ben’s Strategy Blog: Helping Trump Become Carbon Literate
A cold chill gripped the hearts of those of us working in climate change when Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Coming as the Paris Agreement came into force and as COP22 was taking place in Marrakech to sort out the details, would Trump fulfil his campaign promise to pull out of the Agreement? And can CCS help him increase his carbon literacy?
Fifteen years ago the USA’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol fatally undermined that agreement and damaged geopolitics more widely. Concessions made to ensure the treaty came into force through Russia’s ratification led to a glut of the permits to release carbon dioxide that were the basis of the Kyoto Protocol. (Russia’s economy had collapsed after the end of the Soviet Union, which meant that it was already emitting less CO2 than in the baseline year of 1990 and so had lots of permits to sell.) This in turn led to an under-pricing of carbon in the markets, allowing countries to buy cheap permits rather than make the industrial changes necessary to reduce emissions.
So the Kyoto Protocol didn’t achieve the planned reductions. In addition, a back-room deal enabled Russia to join the World Trade Organisation in return for its ratification, helping what was effectively a rogue state to enter world politics and trade at the highest level – with implications which we are seeing today. Will Trump’s election mean the Paris Agreement goes the same way?
Room for optimism?
At the University of Edinburgh the Global Environment and Society Academy (GESA) hastily convened an event to discuss the Trump effect and hundreds of students, staff and others crammed into the ECCI to hear talks from specialists in international law, US politics, business and the humanities, assessing the effects of Trump’s election on the work to address climate change. They weren’t as gloomy as might have been expected, with a number of points being made:
- The US has ratified the Paris Agreement and can’t technically withdraw for three years, after which a further year’s notice has to be given. So even if it does pull out, it won’t take place until the end of Trump’s first presidential term.
- Trump could simply hinder US action on climate change despite the ratification of the treaty. It was acknowledged that this could be as damaging as outright withdrawal.
- But Elizabeth Bomberg noted that federal power is limited and NGOs and others in the US are skilled at using litigation, appeals and other legal methods to delay appointments, rule changes and so on that would get in the way of work to reduce emissions.
- There has always been more climate change action at state and city level than at the presidential level in the US, and this could continue, although the shift to the Republicans at all levels of government could have an effect.
- Andy Kerr of the ECCI pointed out that a number of big US coal companies have filed for bankruptcy recently, not because of regulation but because the demand for coal has collapsed as (much cleaner) shale gas and renewables have taken its place and coal-fired power stations have closed. China is forging ahead with renewables and the US risks being left behind, which industrialists and capitalists won’t like. Some Republican states are benefitting greatly from the upsurge in renewables.
Although I’m not sure I fully share Andy’s implicit ecological moderniser view that technology will solve the problem, I do agree with him that a wave of change is moving across the world including the US and Trump may find it harder than he thinks to revive coal and turn America’s back on change.
A good special report (Breaking the Habit) in the Economist backs this up and interestingly the Earth Negotiations Bulletin’s Summary and Analysis (this is quite heavy going, but go to p36 for the analysis which is more readable) of the Marrakech talks highlights the fact that, when leadership from the USA was lacking, others stepped forward to fill the leadership vacuum, with 48 vulnerable majority-world countries committing to be 100% renewable-powered by 2050. And as he is moving towards taking office, Trump seems to be learning more about climate change and backing down on his campaign promises on climate change as much as on some of his other policies.
Since I started writing this blog, Trump has nominated former Texas governor and fossil fuel proponent Rick Perry as Energy Secretary; Rex Tillerson, Chief Executive of Exxon Mobil as his Secretary of State; and climate-change sceptic Myron Ebell to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. Which makes me a bit less optimistic. But Tillerson spoke in London in October on the need for a carbon price:
In doing so, we must continue to lower emissions. At ExxonMobil, we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action. … We have long supported a carbon tax as the best policy of those being considered. Replacing the hodge-podge of current, largely ineffective regulations with a revenue-neutral carbon tax would ensure a uniform and predictable cost of carbon across the economy. It would allow market forces to drive solutions. It would maximize transparency, reduce administrative complexity, promote global participation and easily adjust to future developments in our understanding of climate science as well as the policy consequences of these actions.
(And since writing that last section, rather more worrying questions have been raised about Tillerson more broadly rather than related to cliamte change, so I’m not sure where I now stand. But (Republican) Texas and North Carolina are also now heavily invested in renewables as well as oil. And the factors above still apply: there will be plenty of politicians arguing against Tillerson’s and the other appointments at the Senate hearings, and not only Democrats.)
Increasing (Trump’s) carbon literacy
Trump may become a bit more carbon literate over the next few months as he discovers that Old King Coal is on the way out and China threatens to beat America in making money by selling renewable technologies to the world. He might want to call us for some help, as in November Creative Carbon Scotland hosted two Carbon Literacy courses (Neat segue! – Ed), one in Edinburgh with staff from the Edinburgh Festivals and one in Glasgow with mostly freelancers in the TV and film production industry.
Working to a specification developed by social enterprise Cooler Projects in Manchester, the Carbon Literacy Project provides a day’s training in the basic science and policy of climate change plus action planning for individuals to apply to their work, education or home life. The core curriculum is tailored to be relevant to the particular group of participants – so the Festivals staff looked at travel by artists to their events and considered the issues relevant to large public gatherings, while the screen production people will have looked at things including the use of diesel generators and how to reduce their use and their fuel consumption.
The screen production course was provided by a consortium led by BAFTA which focuses on the use of the ALBERT planning tool. This helps production and location managers list what they expect to happen in production and then work out what the anticipated carbon emissions might be. The tool also helps them estimate the emissions related to doing things in different ways: different travel modes, different generators, different lighting kit. So it moves us on from retrospective carbon measurement and reporting to the next stage: planning for carbon reduction.
The Edinburgh Festivals course – and indeed the Cooler Projects approach, which the screen production course also uses – focuses on what participants can do to reduce their own or their organisation’s carbon emissions. To pass – and you get a nice certificate! – students must identify changes they will make themselves and in their team at work that will have a real effect.
This isn’t rocket science in the world of carbon management, but the interesting thing about it is that it is aimed at those who are not particularly interested in climate change, environmental sustainability etc. Much of the usual effort aimed at changing behaviours is either taken up by the already concerned, or avoids talking too much about the science of climate change. Cooler Project’s curriculum is strong on information as well as action planning, and is designed to take people from no knowledge to quite sophisticated knowledge very quickly. I helped deliver the Edinburgh Festivals course, and it worked a treat.
The Edinburgh course is part of a project run by the Edinburgh Sustainable Development Partnership of which I am vice-chair, and funded by the Edinburgh Partnership. We at CCS are interested in Carbon Literacy as an idea that has use across the cultural sector: I’m talking to drama schools about offering it to students and we’re talking to Gordon Cunningham, who leads on Low Carbon Skills at Skills Development Scotland, about its inclusion in Modern Apprenticeships. If you’re interested, get in touch.
Image: Cooler Projects and The Carbon Literacy Trust.