Trump Can’t Stop This: Positive Trends on Emissions

President Trump tried to derail U.S. climate progress this month with a series of executive orders, but countries continue to take climate actions at home.
New technology uses coal in a cleaner and more efficient way in Tianjin, China.
Credit: Asian Development Bank/Flickr

President Trump tried to derail U.S. climate progress this month with a series of executive orders, but countries continue to take climate actions at home.

This is our second international climate action update, where we take a moment each month to remember that Donald Trump is not the president of the world—and celebrate other countries’ progress in the global battle against climate change.

President Trump and his team have continued to show that they will try to undercut U.S. climate progress any way they can. While his pen won’t stop the U.S. shift to clean energy, major new reports show that emissions growth is starting to turn the corner, driven by continued shifts in key countries away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. And with new policies being implemented in these nations, we are likely to see even more positive data in the months ahead.

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions: flat for the third year in a row

In the lead-up to global climate summits over the years, one common thread was always evident―graphs showed global emissions continuing to rise under the status quo. These graphs highlighted two dynamics: 1. The scale of the challenge was daunting, as the world needed to significantly change course or the planet would someday be unlivable; and 2. countries weren’t yet up to the task. So it is pretty big news when the International Energy Agency documents that for three straight years, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning haven’t increased. And this even as the global economy grew more than 3 percent, reinforcing the idea that you can both reduce emissions and grow the economy at the same time. While we can’t declare victory just yet―we need global emissions to head downward―it’s a start.

Credit: International Energy Agency data shows global carbon dioxide emissions flat from 2014

China’s declining coal consumption and carbon dioxide emissions

One of the main drivers of the global slowdown in emissions growth is the continuing coal shift in China. Chinese coal consumption peaked in 2013, then fell by 2.9 percent in 2014 and 3.7 percent in 2015 in terms of tonnage. And this trend continued in 2016 as coal’s share of China’s total energy consumption actually fell from 64 percent to 62 percent. As a result, the country’s energy- and cement-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2016 were essentially flat, as detailed by two leading global emissions researchers.

Credit: Dr. Jan Ivar Korsbakken and Dr. Glen Peters, CICERO,

And these trends could continue. For the first time, China has established a mandatory target for decreasing the share of coal in total energy consumption. The country aims to reduce its share to no more than 58 percent by 2020―six percentage points below where it stood in 2015.

China’s headway in coal consumption and carbon dioxide emissions is a big deal. Prior to 2014, most major analysts projected that the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions would continue to grow well past 2030 (see 2014 projections from the International Energy Agency and Energy Information Administration). Given that coal is the source of about 80 percent of China’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, these coal trends indicate that the country’s carbon dioxide emissions will peak well before 2030 and could even be peaking now—an outcome that few thought was possible a couple of years ago. As Alvin Lin, from NRDC’s team in China, puts it: “The last few years mark an extremely significant change in China’s energy structure, economy, and carbon emissions.” That is a big deal for the climate.

Worldwide slowdown in coal power plant build-out

This slowdown in coal isn’t happening just in China. As a new report shows, plans to develop new coal power plants and actual construction of those plants were down over the course of 2016. At the beginning of that year there were 1,090 gigawatts of coal capacity in “pre-construction” planning worldwide; by the end of the year, that amount had fallen to 570 GW―a 48 percent drop. And an even larger drop occurred in the amount of coal power plant capacity under construction. That was down by 62 percent compared with the beginning of 2016. These are additional signs that investors and countries are moving away from coal-fired power plants and toward clean energy.

Latin American countries investing in more domestic climate action

Nissan electric car used as a taxi in Mexico City
Credit: iStock

Climate action is happening beyond just shifts in coal. This trend is evident in Latin America, where a couple of new actions indicate how key nations are moving forward. Latin America is home to some of the world’s most competitive renewable energy markets, and governments in the region are implementing clean energy policies to enable even more renewable energy in the coming years. The Chilean ministries of energy, environment, mining, transportation, and housing have jointly submitted a national plan for greenhouse gas mitigation for public consultation to help to meet their commitments under the Paris climate agreement. The reason for stronger climate action in Chile is quite clear. As environment minister Marcelo Mena put it, “Chile had a historic drought, lack of snow during winter, and worsening air qualities due to an irregular lack of rain.” The plan will help the country meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement by laying out aggressive measures that could even help Chile surpass its target.

The Mexican government launched a new financing program to help overhaul and clean up the country’s public transportation fleet. The program will make special financing available to help taxi drivers convert their vehicles to cleaner natural gas or invest in hybrid vehicles. Reducing emissions from its transportation sector will be a key step for Mexico in meeting its commitments under the Paris climate agreement, and this new measure shows that the government is looking at innovative ways to do so.

Countries still joining key international climate agreements

Since President Trump was elected, countries keep taking steps to formally join the major climate agreements finalized in the past two years. Currently 140 countries―accounting for 82 percent of the world’s emissions―have formally joined the Paris climate agreement, with 38 of them taking that step after Trump was elected. And nations are making moves to formally join the agreement to phase down the powerful climate-warming pollutants called hydrofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol. This agreement was a huge climate victory since it would cut emissions equivalent to knocking out the entire planet’s fossil-fuel CO2 emissions for more than two years. So it is welcome news that countries are starting to formally join this agreement. The Marshall Islands became the first country to ratify the pact, and the European Union has taken the first critical step to formally do the same.