Monday 20 January 2020

US might surprise us on emissions, despite Trump's best efforts

In spite of Donald Trump, the US is on track to cut emissions faster than expected, writes Hamish McRae

Donald Trump. Photo: Getty Images
Donald Trump. Photo: Getty Images

Hamish McRae

When politics and technology clash, bet on technology. That is the best guide to what will happen following the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement to cut carbon emissions.

Whatever view you take of President Trump's action - and I happen to think it is an unforced error - the advance of technology will ensure that the US does indeed cut emissions even faster than it has promised to do under the accord.

Why? Well, step back a moment and consider why the bulk of Uber drivers in America choose Toyota Priuses. They don't do so because they are avid greenies. They do so because, taking into account all the costs, these are the cheapest cars for the job.

The switch to fully electric cars may have hardly begun but I spotted a Tesla in the regular taxi rank at a train station in Newcastle, England, last weekend. Geordies in Teslas? Something huge is happening.

It is quite true that electric cars still emit carbon if the electricity they use is generated by fossil fuel power stations, but that is changing too with astonishing speed - albeit quicker in some countries than in others.

Take our nearest neighbour, for example. One lunchtime just over a week ago, one quarter of the power used in the UK was being produced by solar. That was exceptional for it was a particularly sunny day, but you see the point. The move away from carbon fuels is happening much faster than predicted even two years ago.

There are three facets to the shift: increased efficiency in energy use, a switch to renewables, and the falling cost of electricity storage. A quick word about each, then a prediction.

Energy efficiency to most of us is a car with lower fuel consumption, a better-insulated home, or perhaps a shift in our habits to cut energy use. Think a bit deeper and you realise that companies and public bodies are doing the same: making small changes to try to use less energy.

But there is something else going on that is even more important. It is the move away of developed economies from goods to services. Producing a service will, in general, use less energy than manufacturing something of the same value. As a result, advanced economies are able to increase their GDP - become richer - without increasing energy use. This is happening in most countries but it can be dramatically seen throughout Europe, especially in former manufacturing hotspots.

In the US, energy use has up to now fallen relatively slowly compared with other developed countries. But even there the trend is set. Vehicle miles travelled per person have been falling for a decade and electricity consumption is slightly lower than it was in 2008.

The trend towards lower use started later than in other developed countries but now seems to be following the same pattern.

The switch to renewables seems set in the US, driven by lower costs. It is a regional thing, with solar power in sunny states such as Arizona now cheaper than coal, which is the cheapest fossil fuel, and about the same as gas.

Of course, solar provides power only during daylight, but that is when power is most needed. The trick is to combine solar and storage so that the combination is as cheap as gas. According to the latest reports, the technology is just about there. Of course, you have to aim off a bit, for this is southern US where power is needed for air-conditioning, not the cold north where is it needed for heating.

Although the proportion of total energy production from renewables overall is still low, the direction of travel is clear.

The final element of the story is electricity storage.

The cheaper the storage, the more viable wind and solar become. The driving force here is battery packs for cars, the cost of which has fallen by nearly 80pc over the past six years, and will fall much further as mass production of electric vehicles soars.

There is a global race to scale up the technology to store power on a scale than can enable grids to cope with peaks in demand without having to fire up gas plants. We are not there yet in cost terms but could be in five years.

Pull this together and what do you have?

I suggest this. Under the Paris Agreement the US was committed to reducing carbon emissions by between 26pc and 28pc over 2005 levels by the year 2025.

Given the trends over the previous decade, at the time when the agreement was signed at the end of 2015, the reduction by 2025 looked like being between 20pc and 25pc. So, by signing, the US was committing to speed up the process.

But that was before the impact of the technological progress noted here really took hold.

My guess is that, thanks to this progress, the US will have cut its emissions by at least 26pc and more likely by 30pc by 2025.

In other words, it will beat its own target.


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