CLIMATE POLICY in America has always been an up-and-down affair. But few reversals have been as dramatic as the replacement of Barack Obama with Donald Trump. Unlike his predecessor, the current president is sceptical about climate change and loves “beautiful, clean” coal. The environmental agencies are stocked with former lobbyists for coal, fracking and chemicals companies. And yet according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in America dropped by 2.7% in his first year of office. This was the biggest reduction anywhere in the rich world.
Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who now heads the EPA, has been quick to praise “President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda” for this. In fact, the decline has little to do with the president’s policies. America’s carbon dioxide emissions have been on a downward trajectory since 2007, mostly because power plants have been switching to cheaper, cleaner natural gas and away from Mr Trump’s beloved rock. According to the Energy Information Administration, a government agency, America guzzled nearly equal quantities of coal and natural gas in 2007. Today natural gas provides twice as much energy as coal. Energy from renewable sources, like wind and solar, now make up just over 10% of America’s energy consumption.
Since 2010 nearly 40% of the country’s coal-generating capacity has either been shut down or designated for closure. This is mostly because rival fuels were cheaper, rather than the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which was much derided but never actually went into effect. Even under Mr Trump, coal plants are expected to shut down 11.4GW of capacity this year, the most since 2015. No American utility plans to build a new coal-fired plant; most of the existing ones are at least 40 years old. The environmental regulations that the Trump administration is trying to undo will not restore the coal industry to its glory days, though they might slow its decline.
That is because America’s relative success at decarbonisation is mainly a result of market forces. Though these will continue to operate, the dent in emissions will be smaller than if the federal government joined in too. On current trends, carbon dioxide emissions will be 17% lower in 2025 than they were in 2005, some way short of the 26-28% reductions envisaged in the Paris Agreement, which Mr Trump withdrew from, or the Clean Power Plan. This improvement is too gradual to avoid the disastrous consequences predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of a world that is 2°C warmer.
For those reasons, if there is a struggling power sector the administration wishes to foster, nuclear would be a worthier candidate than coal. Done with enough determination, propping up coal could stall progress towards decarbonising the economy. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, produces little carbon dioxide (though uranium mining and milling does have a small effect). Yet capacity has been stuck since 2000, and plants have floundered financially because gas is cheap and there is no reward for the absence of pollution which is nuclear’s main selling point.
The best policy to rectify this would be a carbon tax, yet carbon taxes are easily denounced as energy taxes, which voters do not much appreciate. That leaves Democrats, soon to take power in the House of Representatives, in a bind. With Republicans still controlling the Senate and the White House, a vote for a carbon tax looks like a self-defeating political strategy and a self-defeating climate strategy, because it could lose the Democratic majority, says Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser to Bill Clinton. If House Democrats want to pass bills, they will find that Republicans representing districts with nuclear plants or wind turbines like tax credits for those technologies, says Matthew Nisbet of Northeastern University.
Which path Democrats pursue will depend on their choice of leader. Nancy Pelosi, who is drumming up support to be named Speaker of the House once again, is a pragmatic tactician who is unlikely to bring risky votes to the floor. But Ms Pelosi faces an open rebellion to her rule. At the same time, a coalition of newly elected Democrats is agitating for a green New Deal that would make America carbon neutral within ten years. The most famous of the band, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, spent her first day in Washington as a member-elect joining a sit-in of environmental protesters. Their chosen venue was not the White House, but Ms Pelosi’s office.