Trump Or No Trump, We’ll Bury the Carbon Economy

We’ve seen a lot of panic on climate change issues, and understandably so, since Trump’s election. But let’s not overestimate what Trump can actually do to derail progress, or underestimate what we’ll continue to do despite him.

First, whatever you think of government policies on such matters, the national and local governments of a major part of the world’s population — and state and local governments of a major share of the U.S. population — are already committed to large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and in many cases have already achieved them. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the state functions as the “executive committee of the capitalist ruling class,” as Marx put it. And sometimes it pursues long term collective interests of capital, like preventing total collapse of the biosphere, despite the short term interests of some or even most capitalists. This is not to say its motives are good, that there aren’t much better ways of doing things, or even that it’s especially competent in carrying this stuff out. But Rube Goldberg machine though it may be, at least the state sometimes acts to limit the damage resulting from its own previous actions to subsidize wasteful energy and transportation inputs and encourage fossil fuel consumption.

At the global level, countries participating in the Paris Agreement seem likely, for the most part, to continue pursuing their individual commitments even if the U.S. drops out. China, until recently driving most of the world’s new fossil fuel consumption, may position itself politically as the new global climate leader simply because it has stabilized fossil fuel consumption and is leading the world in adding renewable energy capacity for economic reasons.

In the U.S., 24 states have already beaten their 2022 carbon emissions goals, and California — 12% of the U.S. market — is pushing higher reduction standards than even Obama had committed to.

Second, far more than government policies, laws of nature and economics that are beyond Trump’s control are driving reduced fossil fuel consumption, and will continue to do so — even if Trump greenlights Keystone, the Dakota Access pipeline and every other proposed pipeline project in the country. The basic laws of physics and geology behind Peak Oil and Peak Fossil Fuels — most importantly the tendency of remaining sources of fuel to have lower and lower energy return on energy input (EROEI) — have not been repealed.

Current low oil prices result mainly, not from new unconventional fuel recovery techniques — which are generally much lower in EROEI than older extraction methods — but from Saudi Arabia pumping oil from its old reserves at unsustainable levels for political reasons and hastening their exhaustion.

Recurring energy price spikes have created a strong incentive to decouple economic productivity from energy consumption, so that American CO2 emissions have fallen by 10% over the past decade for mostly economic reasons. Power plant carbon emissions are already three quarters of the way to Obama’s Clean Power Plan reduction goals of 32 percent. And this trend will likely continue despite Trump simply because we seem to be near peak demand for fossil fuels, regardless of the supply side.

Even as carbon-powered plants are being retired, renewables account for about two thirds of new American generating capacity.

China, currently the source of 30% of CO2 emissions, is levelling off — and may even have peaked — fossil fuel consumption for reasons largely unrelated to the Paris agreement.

And on a global level, CO2 emissions have been levelling off for about three years and are now virtually flat — a projected growth of 0.2% for this year — compared to their previous growth trajectory.

Third, and most importantly, human creativity and cooperation are making renewables more and more attractive — and economical — relative to fossil fuels. A decade ago Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken, in Natural Capitalism, argued that existing low-hanging fruit technologies, if applied to all new buildings, appliances, cars, etc., could achieve a factor five reduction in energy consumption — in most cases at an actual cost savings up front. All that was needed was to speed up the adoption curve. We may now have arrived at that point.

Solar generating technology has been falling in cost exponentially — solar panels cost about a quarter as much per watt as they did ten years ago. We see announcements of new breakthroughs in the most costly bottleneck — storage capacity — on an almost weekly basis. And some of the most promising innovations are open-source, created by commons-based peer production, foreshadowing the society that will emerge from its cocoon when our current world of states (including Trump) and global corporations finishes dying off.

For that matter, we’re not exactly rolling over and playing dead even when it comes to the stuff Trump can do. Climate activists all over the Midwest are blocking trains transporting supplies to the DAPL construction site.

When it comes to the survival of humanity, don’t put your faith in princes — but don’t let them scare you too much, either.

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