You could be forgiven for feeling a little melancholy this World Environment Day. Coming so soon after President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and with the natural world under threat as never before, what was supposed to be a festive “reconnecting with nature” is in danger of feeling like a last visit to the bedside of a dying relative.
But, tempting as it might be, it’s important not to succumb to the gloom. After all, incredible progress is being made around the world on the transition to the green economy – a fair, prosperous, and sustainable future for all. Let’s be clear: Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement is a political, moral, and environmental failure on an historic scale. But, as so many people have been saying, it will not derail on-going climate action. As UN Secretary General António Guterres noted last week, that train has already left the station.
The momentum building behind the green transition has been hard to miss. Most obviously, clean energy is powering ahead. According to the World Economic Forum, solar and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels in more than 30 countries, and this fact alone is having a seismic impact on energy markets. Renewables have accounted for the majority of all new energy generation for the last two years in a row, and this month the International Renewable Energy Agency announced the sector now employs ten million people around the world.
As the costs of clean power continue to fall, fossil fuels are already being crowded out of the marketplace. Peabody, the world’s largest coal producer, declared insolvency in 2016, and by some estimates half of US coal is now owned by companies that have gone bankrupt. On the very same day that rumours of Trump’s Paris decision began swirling, three US coal plants were shut down, Reuters announced that fossil-free funds are booming, and shareholders forced ExxonMobil to face up to the reality of climate change. Fossil firms are now anxiously preparing for the day when oil demand peaks and starts to fall.
More and more national governments are recognising that the days of the brown economy are over, and are embracing the transition. Sweden, Iceland, Costa Rica and Germany have all committed to go carbon neutral. India plans to make all cars electric; Norway has vowed to be the first country to be ‘deforestation-free’ and to go carbon neutral by 2030; China’s installed renewable energy capacity is bigger than in the rest of countries around the world combined. And within the US, city and state governments from New York to California are leading the way on some of the most ambitious climate programmes in the world.
The green transition, and the transformation in how we value our natural assets, is already happening, and Trump’s decision will do little to stop it. It does, however, leave a space for others to grasp the mantle of environmental leadership. The EU and China are the obvious candidates, and both powers have already reaffirmed their commitment to climate action in the strongest possible terms since Trump's announcement.
But with the White House opting out, emerging economies now have an opportunity to lead by example. The “High-Ambition Coalition” at the Paris talks demonstrated that even tiny states can have an outsized impact on climate diplomacy, and the Global South now accounts for the lion’s share of clean energy investment. America’s absence will create a climate leadership vacuum that countries like India, South Africa and Brazil are well placed to fill.
It’s undeniable that Trump’s decision to ignore the realities of climate change is a tragedy, one that is felt especially keenly on World Environment Day. The world faces unprecedented challenges over the next few decades. Meeting them will require concerted and coordinated effort from every government in the world, and without the full support of the US those challenges become even more daunting.
But the green transition is happening anyway, even without Trump in the engine room. Many feared that the US withdrawal from Paris would give cover to those arguing for reduced ambition. But in reality, the decision has instead galvanised the rest of the world to double down on their climate commitments. To paraphrase William F. Buckley, Trump is standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!”. Luckily, no one seems to be listening.