Businesses will defy Trump in low-carbon transition, say climate experts

A backward-looking Donald Trump administration will fail to deter corporations seeking to shift to low-carbon, sustainable business models, a panel of US climate and green policy experts has concluded.

Environmental Defense Fund executive director Diane Regas and former climate change counsellor John Podesta were speaking at a high-level discussion on climate change in the Trump era at the Economist Sustainability Summit yesterday (23 March).

Regas, a former senior official at the US Environment Protection Agency, conceded that private sector efforts to accelerate the low-carbon transition will be “hurt” somewhat by the Trump administration. She stressed, however, that with a few exceptions, US businesses are willing to “play the long game”.

Regas highlighted the “incredible” example of Walmart’s pre-election commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emission from the manufacture and use of their products by one billion tonnes between 2015 and 2030, more than the annual emissions of Germany.

“Companies do that because they are concerned about the bottom line,” she said. “Corporate America is very smart. They know that there is going to be competition and they want to be ahead of it. They know there is a lot of young people who don’t want to work for companies who aren’t doing the right thing.

“Companies that want to innovate are going to be hurt by this test. Investment in fundamentals of science and technology has been such a generator in that growth in innovation. If we see a big cutback in the department of energy, the national science foundation and some of the major scientific institutions, that is going to have a long-term negative impact on the benefit of the decarbonisation transition.

“But if companies look at this competition in the long-term, it can be a really important and prosperous moment for America. How they fare in the next generation will depend fundamentally on the decisions they make today.”

Big steps

US businesses have already warned President Trump that a failure to build a low-carbon economy will put “American prosperity at risk”. Despite Trump’s plans to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, more than 360 US-based firms and investors, including the likes of Ikea, Unilever, Mars and Nike, have reaffirmed their commitment to supporting the historic deal and the need to accelerate the low-carbon transition.

The tech sector in particular has been clear in signalling that delayed action on climate change will be costly in economic and environmental terms; Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft last year collectively filed a briefing to support former President Barack Obama’s call to lower electricity sector emissions by 32% by 2030 as part of the Clean Power Plan. And just last month, a US-based coalition featuring tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon applauded the efforts of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to open-up US wholesale electricity markets to energy storage and demand response initiatives.

These steps are viewed as encouraging by think-tank Center for American Progress founder Podesta, who previously served as co-chair of President Obama’s transition team. During yesterday’s panel discussion, Podesta stated that, although the private sector is likely to tone-down rhetoric on the low-carbon agenda over the next four years of the Trump administration, businesses will likely continue on a sustainable long-term trajectory in spite of any political setbacks.

“There is a huge amount of money being invested in innovation,” Podesta said. “There are some big steps being made by some major companies, particularly in the tech sector, on sustainable technologies. They see that is where the future is. Whether that is investment in renewable technologies in or sustainable power generation. That is where a lot of investment flows are going.

“But the administration will initiate an assault on the environment. So one of the negative things we are going to see from this administration is companies being more reluctant to voice their concerns in public. But, in terms of what plans they have made, they are playing the long game.

“We are seeing this play out in different spheres and there will be a particularly strong push from governors and mayors who have stuck with the programme in pushing the country forward into a clean energy future. That’s where investment is taking place, that is where jobs will be created and that is where the future of the US economy is.

“We are likely to see a change in behaviour but the base of the US economy will shift more towards clean energy and sustainability because it has to be a benefit for the whole economy.”

George Ogleby

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