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Opinion People are worried Trump will stop climate progress. The numbers suggest he can’t

Wind turbines in front of a rainbow near Vierzon, France in 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images)

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election injected uncertainty into last week’s climate negotiations in Marrakech – but how large is the potential for disruption of global climate progress? Recent news coverage points to conclusions at both extremes. Only by reviewing the numbers can we distinguish the signal from the noise.

First, let’s consider the limited scale of countries’ current pledges relative to overall emissions reductions needed to keep the global mean temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a target for the Paris climate agreement. While countries’ pledges are expected to lead to flattening growth in annual emissions globally out to 2030, they are far from the more than 50 percent drop in emissions needed by 2050 to keep on track for the 2 C limit. Even before the election, commitments had to be ratcheted up. This remains true today.    

However, current commitments are also expected to drive substantial clean energy innovation. This near-term energy innovation is critical to encourage countries to set more ambitious, longer-term emissions targets.

For example, in a renewables-focused scenario, we estimate that by 2030, globally-installed wind and solar photovoltaics (PV) capacity could grow by factors of nearly 3 and 5, respectively, under current commitments. Electricity costs from these technologies could fall by 25 percent and 50 percent. Significant cost reductions are possible in these and other clean energy technologies, such as stationary energy storage, from the private research and development, economies of scale, and learning by doing that accompanies growing markets. History has shown that rapid and sustained improvement can result.

Furthermore, changes in U.S. federal policy alone can only have a limited effect on global emissions reductions and clean energy expansion under the Paris agreement, when we consider state action and changes already set in motion in the private sector.

In the electricity sector, if U.S. states continue pursuing their existing renewables portfolio standards (RPS) – and if China, the European Union, India, and other countries stay on track to meet their emissions targets under the Paris agreement – then changes to U.S. federal policy may only result in a 2 percent reduction of global solar PV and wind power capacity in 2030. This number represents a scenario without the US Clean Power Plan (CPP), and with only state-level RPS contributions of 45 to 53 gigawatts of new solar photovoltaic and wind capacity by 2030. This amounts to roughly 60 percent of the new solar PV and wind capacity expected under the CPP. This figure is a low estimate because it does not include federal tax credits with bipartisan support, other state-level incentives, or locations where wind (and even solar) is becoming cost-effective without government incentives.

In the transportation sector, federal fuel economy standards have already initiated changes to the vehicle fleet, with effects that will persist throughout a one- or two-term presidential administration. Most manufacturers have incorporated the Environmental Protection Agency’s light duty vehicle standards, approved in 2012, into their plans up to the 2019 model year. Fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, expected to reduce that sector’s emissions by 25 percent, were carefully crafted with industry input to be technologically feasible and cost-effective.

Additionally, 37 states and the District of Columbia provide incentives for purchasing hybrid and electric vehicles, and 10 states (representing one quarter of all miles driven) have voluntarily adopted California’s stricter vehicle standards. These state policies create a guaranteed market that will drive innovation and further reduce prices for low-emissions vehicles across the country. (Several low-emissions personal vehicles that meet the U.S. 2030 target are already cost-competitive.)

The emissions impacts of changes to U.S. federal policy are more difficult to assess. Many factors will play a role, such as the shares of natural gas and coal in the electricity sector, as well as energy efficiency investments that drive down demand. However, we estimate that the U.S. can achieve the majority share of its original 2025 emissions reduction target even with federal policy changes. More ambitious state policies would further compensate for changes at the federal level.

On the basis of these numbers alone, it’s clear that the United States will continue to contribute to clean energy market expansion and emissions reduction even with changes to federal policy. Additionally, several states are well positioned to increase their clean energy ambition to keep the U.S. mostly on track to meeting its near-term clean energy commitments, and to keep longer-term emissions goals – not yet implemented in policy – within reach.

Moreover, many countries are likely to stick to their climate plans. China, which represents more than one third of the expected solar PV and wind capacity growth between now and 2030, has indicated it plans to do so. The EU commitment looks strong as well. The demand created in China, the EU, and India – together accounting for over 50 percent of global solar PV and wind capacity additions by 2030 – argues for companies to stay competitive in these markets.

In purely economic terms, there are arguments for moving ahead with climate and clean energy policies. Much innovation in wind and solar is expected through local installation experience. The international competitiveness of Danish firms in off-shore wind due to experience supported by national policies is well documented. In the U.S., the growth of the solar and wind industry is increasingly entangled with individual states’ economic development, regardless of their support for climate policy.

The United States must aggressively reduce its emissions for global climate change mitigation to be successful, and should contribute its fair share to clean energy research – but over the course of one or two terms, a Trump administration alone cannot halt global progress. Even if U.S. federal policy is diminished, individual states are well equipped to take up the slack. Moral and ethical considerations aside, self-interest should induce national, state, and local governments and companies to step forward to compete in clean energy markets, rather than hold back until the next U.S. president is elected.

Jessika E. Trancik is an associate professor of energy studies in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Email: Magdalena M. Klemun and Morgan R. Edwards are graduate students in the Trancik Lab at MIT, who contributed to this piece. Other members of the Trancik Lab also contributed to the analysis.