Is Donald Trump about to become a leading force in the global effort to combat climate change?
It seems unlikely, considering the US president has called global warming a “hoax” concocted by China to hurt US industry and vowed to unpick the Paris climate accord that is supposed to curb rising temperatures.
However, new data from the International Energy Agency showing that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels have remained flat for three years in a row, despite a growing global economy, suggest Mr Trump might play a bigger climate role than expected.
One reason emissions have stalled is that the shale revolution hailed by Mr Trump has led to a surge in cheaper natural gas that has pushed out coal in the US. The shale boom has already helped drive down gas prices and may accelerate as Mr Trump moves to ease drilling regulations and spur what Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, called a “de-bottlenecking” of gas infrastructure
That means shale gas production and exports from the US could be higher than expected, said Mr Birol. This could bring cheaper gas to Asia, where it could become more competitive with coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, and help drive down global emissions further.
“Today, globally, the share of gas in the energy mix is close to 25 per cent but in China it is 6 per cent and in India 5 per cent — two countries with huge coal consumption,” Mr Birol said in an Financial Times interview. “If gas becomes cheaper as a result of much higher production it can compete with coal.”
China is already the world’s largest carbon emitter, followed by the US. The EU’s 28 member countries are collectively the third biggest polluter but India is the third largest individual nation.
Air pollution concerns are already driving what Mr Birol said had been a “significant growth” of gas in China and India.
In Europe, meanwhile, gas and a rising share of renewables have displaced coal in many countries, notably the UK, where coal use dwindled to just 9 per cent of electricity generation last year, down from 23 per cent two years ago.
“It is happening across Europe,” said Mr Birol, “because gas is becoming cheap and affordable and there is an expectation there will be a lot of gas coming to the market”.
Mr Trump promised repeatedly throughout the US election campaign that he would revive the struggling US coal industry and be the “last shot” for miners.
However, some experts say the president’s efforts to boost gas production will make that promise difficult to keep and may instead mean he ends up presiding over a fall in carbon emissions.
“That broad argument is quite reasonable and valid,” said Glen Peters, a scientist at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo (Cicero), who is part of a network of experts that has tracked stalling global carbon emissions.
He said Mr Trump was also likely to find it difficult to boost fossil fuel use in the US as much as some climate change campaigners fear.
“A lot of what’s happened in the US in the last five years has been a result of economics,” he said. “Gas has been cheaper than coal and that has been driving the shift away from coal. There has also been a contribution from renewables that are supported in a lot of Republican states.”
In addition, he said investors were likely to be wary of taking the risk of building new coal-fired power plants just because Mr Trump is in office, because any new president could switch back to low-carbon policies.
Mr Peters’ research chimes with the IEA’s findings that emissions have stalled over the past three years, partly because of a restructuring of the Chinese economy that is shifting the country’s role as the world’s factory.
Beijing has also been moving to address air pollution by boosting renewables and electric vehicles, and shutting down inefficient coal power plants.
Mr Birol said this may have led to an important inflection point in the world’s biggest carbon polluter. “It seems to me the golden age of coal in China is over,” he said.