Encouraging coal-based power production and discouraging clean energy are two immediate consequences of the decree signed March 28th by the President of the United States. Another effect – perverse and, unfortunately, ignored by Donald Trump – is the increased vulnerability of the American society itself to the negative effects of climate change. That scenario raises concerns on how much those measures will affect in turn the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; on the other hand, there is an opening for Brazil and other countries to cement their position as protagonists of a new economy aimed at environmental protection and reduced carbon emissions.
Trump's decree dismantles the U.S. Clean Power Plan approved by his predecessor in 2015, which created incentives for advancing energy sources not based in fossil fuels. Under debatable claims of recreating job openings, Trump has taken a misstep back by removing restrictions from the coal industry, one of the most polluting energy sources. The new decree also strengthens, for example, a portion of the automobile industry that is a heavy emitter of greenhouse gases and backward-thinking.
The current position of the U.S. government implies they will not adapt their territory for the adverse effects of climate change. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina drove one million people from their homes, and, certainly, changes in global climate tend to make that and other extreme events more and more frequent. This means the USA is risking lives, structures, economic activity and biodiversity by neglecting climate change.
The costs for repairing damages such as those will be higher than the investment in initiatives to avoid them – as has been proven in 2006 by British World Bank economist Nicholas Stern. Furthermore, if that change was enacted taking advantage of the potential natural environments have of making societies more resilient, there would be an even lower cost and additional benefits, as shown by a 2015 study by the Boticário Group Foundation of Nature Protection.
Other forces, both internal and external, tend to counterbalance the Trump administration position. Research centers around the world are already investing significantly in clean and adaptive technologies. And, as most companies today are transnational, the American private sector will not be left out of this. As a matter of survival, they will follow the global trend – only with fewer incentives. An example of this is the new American Copper Buildings in New York, designed shortly after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city in 2012. One of the major innovations of the enterprise is ensuring that tenants have access to electricity for as long as possible in case supply is interrupted due to natural disasters.
Even if the private sector shows positive efforts, government obstacles tend to make it difficult for the USA to reach their goals of reducing greenhouse gases, voluntarily established under the Paris Accord – which became effective in 2016 and currently comprises 141 countries. However, when counting all national contributions, we cannot reach the minimum desired threshold increase in global average temperature to between 1.5 and 2 °C until the end of the century; today we estimate that threshold to be around 3 °C.
Just as the world needs leaders to push for higher goals and set an example to encourage others to follow them, the USA want to leave the game. However, highly prestigious positions such as this are not usually left vacant, and China and the European Union countries are already taking the lead.
Brazil also has an opportunity to establish itself as a protagonist, provided it goes beyond its national goals for reducing greenhouse gases. This includes stopping deforestation in all biomes; investing in renewable energy sources – solar, wind, bio-fuels, etc.; and modernizing national agriculture.
For that last point, we need public policies and technology to increase agricultural productivity, soil use and management efficiency and planning, taking the country to a production standard of low carbon emissions together with the preservation of biodiversity. Examples are reducing practices with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, such as deforestation, scorch fires, and nitrogen fertilization – in that case, by avoiding waste when applying the fertilizer and by growing nitrogen-trapping plants.
Global climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, offering both losses and opportunities. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump focuses only on the negative side. He closes his eyes to the fact that the world is changing toward a more sustainable future and a new low-carbon economy. It is now up to the other countries to play their part and make the most of their efforts. There is no choice, nor any time to lose.