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Trump’s war on clean air won’t add jobs

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U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on March 28 calling for fundamental changes to anti-global warming measures that had been introduced by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The order specifically was aimed at reviewing regulations that impede the development of domestic energy sources like coal and shale oil and gas, abolishing the Clean Power Plan which the Obama administration adopted in 2015, and bringing back lost jobs in the energy-related industries.

The Clean Power Plan mandated state governments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from thermal power plants in the United States by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Lawsuits for invalidating the plan were subsequently filed by 27 conservative states, and in February last year, the Federal Supreme Court ruled to temporarily suspend the plan.

From the 1960s up to 2005, coal-fired thermal power plants constantly generated around 50 percent of total U.S. electricity supply. In the ensuing decade, however, that proportion declined rapidly to hit 31 percent last year.

What replaced coal as the power source was natural gas, whose share once remained low at between 10 percent and 20 percent but overtook that of coal last year. Conversion from a coal-fired power plant to a natural gas-fired plant reduces the per-kilowatt hour CO2 emissions by roughly 40 percent.

The dramatic changes in the composition of power supply sources are attributable more to a technological revolution in tapping underground shale gas than to the Clean Power Plan.

Advanced technologies made it possible to find and produce large quantities of oil and natural gas contained in shale deep below the ground surface at a low cost. The use of shale gas beginning in 2013 reduced the cost of thermal power generation to below that of coal-fired plants and nuclear power. In other words, the decline in coal’s share as the source of power generation resulted from an easily understandable economic reason, rather than the Clean Power Plan or tightened regulations on methane gas emissions at coal mines.

When Trump signed the executive order surrounded not only by senior government officials but also by representatives of coal mine workers, he said he was determined to scrap rules that “kill jobs.” It is effectively impossible, however, to reverse the economic rationale even if the Clean Power Plan were to be abolished.

According to the 2016 National Solar Job Census conducted by the Solar Foundation, the number of workers in the solar power industry increased by 25 percent over the year to top 260,000, more than twice as many as those hired in coal mining, including subcontractors to coal mines. President Obama aimed to use anti-climate change measures as a leverage to accelerate the shift to renewable energy sources. In the U.S., renewable sources (not including major hydro power plants) accounted for 5.9 percent of electricity generation in 2015. Although this falls short of comparable figures among leading European economies such as Germany, it far surpasses Japan’s 3.1 percent.

Trump’s populism is most frequently expressed by his repeated calls for bringing jobs back to the U.S. If asked what he did not like about Obama’s climate change policy, Trump would point to the loss of jobs in the coal industry. However, the decline of America’s coal mining is the outcome of the shale gas revolution. There is virtually nil chance of environmental deregulation bringing jobs back to the coal industry.

In the first place, Trump is skeptical of climate change being caused by anthropogenic increases in CO2 emissions. Tapped by Trump as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency was Scott Pruitt, former state attorney general of Oklahoma and a leading figure among such skeptics. Trump has said he would make substantial cuts to the EPA budget, not only on anti-global warming measures but also on combating air pollution and contamination of river water.

Back in March 2001, President George W. Bush declared that the U.S. was withdrawing from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for two reasons: (1) the protocol would do harm to the U.S. economy, and (2) the protocol was meaningless without the participation of China and other developing economies. Bush also said the Kyoto Protocol had fatal shortcomings. My interpretation of what he meant is twofold. First, there was insufficient scientific evidence to prove that the rising CO2 density in the atmosphere is causing the climate change. Second, the 10-year limit set for attaining the goals of the protocol is too short, and, therefore, would be detrimental to truly effective large-scale technological renovation that would require a lead time of 20 to 30 years.

In sum, both Bush and Trump opposed restricting CO2 emissions at the expense of the economy and jobs, because they were both skeptical of the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being the primary cause of global warming and climate change.

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the U.S. is committed to reducing by 2025 its CO2 emission by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels. However, the chances of the U.S. achieving that target appear to have all but vanished with the abolition of the Clean Power Plan. The whole world is anxiously watching whether Trump will follow in Bush’s footsteps and pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord. Since he is devoted to populism, Trump’s decision may ultimately depend on American public opinion.

A majority of ordinary people in the U.S. — Trump’s main support base — may agree to a decision for the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. But according to a recent report by Newsweek (March 30 in the Japanese online edition), major U.S. companies like food firm Mars, office supply firm Staples, clothing retailer Gap and energy giant ExxonMobile have expressed opposition to Trump’s decontrol of environment regulations and possible withdrawal from the Paris accord.

Although anything could happen, however, it appears that Trump will likely choose the path of pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement as long as he sticks to populism.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.