2016 was a dramatic year for sustainability in politics. While more than 100 countries committed to slashing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement, both the UK vote to leave the EU (which is behind most of its greener legislation) and America’s election of unabashed climate-change denier Donald Trump to its presidency have caused many to wonder at the implications for our planet.
But global business has huge power. Corporate America has already written collectively to Trump making clear its commitment to more sustainability, while prohibitive costs may scupper any plans to revive America’s coal industry. Natural gas is now the biggest source of US electricity generation. Six US coal companies went bankrupt just last year, and there has been little return on the millions of both private and public dollars spent in the last decade attempting to ‘clean up’ coal production by cutting its CO2 emissions. It’s hard to see any business case for reverting to coal.
President Barack Obama, in his farewell speech, cited among his administration’s achievements a halved dependence on foreign oil coupled with a doubled renewable energy sector. His recent scholarly article in the journal Science assures all backers of clean energy that the world will continue to fight global warming regardless, describing a worldwide shift toward lower-carbon energy both “irreversible” and still gaining momentum.
While restricting emissions from power plants, vehicles and factories could once limit a country’s economic growth, he explains, CO2 emissions and growth are no longer causally linked. Global gross domestic product grew by 3.4 percent and 3.1 percent in 2014 and 2015 respectively, yet carbon emissions from the energy sector held flat, according to estimates by the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Analysts attribute this to widespread, and increasing, investment in energy efficiency and renewables.
The World Economic Forum has reported that solar or wind energy is now either the same price or cheaper than fossil fuel generation would be in more than 30 countries, declaring a “tipping point” where greener energy becomes the more profitable option. Businesses are reducing their energy use and investing in renewables, not just to appease consumers or stay within government restrictions, but to boost their bottom lines. Wind and solar power prices plummet as the technology improves, volumes grow and manufacturing and installation costs shrink. The US Department of Energy reports the cost of electricity from its wind farms dropping by 41% and from large-scale solar installations by 64% between 2008 and 2015.
New UN boss Antonio Guterres has said he wants more “strategic cooperation” with both civil society and the private sector, and highlighted the “mutual benefits of corporate responsibility”. With a huge amount of public-private collaboration toward clean energy already, policymakers and business leaders across the world are competing for all the potential jobs and investment. Michael Drexler of the World Economic Forum calls it “An outright compelling investment opportunity with long-term, stable, inflation-protected returns.”
Global investment is still at only around 25% of the $1 billion-a-year target first set in Copenhagen six years ago. As Obama suggests, without even bolder action, we all face a future of environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and climate refugees. We can’t afford complacency. But while a ‘leader of the free world’ with Trump’s agenda is not ideal, it may prove impossible to reverse or even slow the tide of progress toward a greener future.