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Donald Trump’s successful election campaign has set the world abuzz, and led to questions about the effect he will have on the economy. Trump was openly critical of the Federal government’s stance on climate policy, its commitment to the Paris Accord, and, presumably, the bilateral agreement between the US and China to address climate change as a priority issue.

While the implications are likely to be very significant, there are some reasons for hope.

Firstly, with the fiery rhetoric of the campaign now in the past, Trump has signalled that his position has softened on a number of issues, including an admission this week that he believes there is “some connectivity” between humans and climate change. This is a dramatic shift from his position during the election debates, when he stated that climate change was a Chinese conspiracy to make US manufacturing less competitive. While Obama was a strong proponent of the Paris Accord, ratification into US law was always going to be challenging.

Secondly, the states, rather than the Federal government, have driven much of the actual policy on climate change and clean energy in the United States. For example, California has anchored the cap and trade system in the Western Climate Initiative, and Oregon and Washington are moving towards carbon taxation systems. Around 30 states in the US have strong renewable portfolio standards that drive investment in renewables.

The biggest targets for early reversals of the policies of the Obama administration are likely to be the Keystone XL pipeline and the application of the Clean Air Act to limit new coal fired energy production. Trump made strong statements about the potential for large-scale “clean coal” production in the US, which is still largely a contradiction in terms.

At the same time, rapid expansion of shale oil and shale gas production in the US has dramatically changed energy supply on the continent. There are vast reserves of shale gas in sufficient volumes to supply the country for 25 years at less that $4/GJ. As a result, gas fired power generation recently eclipsed coal fired generation and, while it still results in greenhouse gas emissions, the emissions are significantly lower (up to 50%) than those from coal.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen how much of the fire and rhetoric from the campaign trail makes it into policy in the White House. Regardless, given the Republican domination of the House of Representatives and Congress, there is little doubt that the United States as a whole will end up moving backwards on climate policy.

Dr. James Tansey, 24  November 2016