On 20 January 2017, as Donald Trump was being sworn in as the 45th US president, the America First Energy Plan was being added to the climate action page of the White House’s website. As many had feared, the plan promised to tackle “burdensome regulations on our energy industry” and held only a single dubious reference to climate change: “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as [President Obama’s] Climate Action Plan.”

Many wrung their hands in dismay. “Millions of Americans voted for a coal-loving climate denier willing to condemn people around the globe to poverty, famine and death from climate change,” said Benjamin Schreiber, climate director at Friends of the Earth US, at the time. “It seems undeniable the US will become a rogue state on climate change.”

However, four years on, despite Trump rolling back more than 80 environmental regulations, the US’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen and the transition to renewables has continued.

A worker installs a solar panel system on the roof of a home in Florida during Trump’s presidency. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Between 2018 and 2019, the country saw the single biggest absolute decline in energy-related CO2 emissions of any country in the world, according to the International Energy Agency, with a fall of 140Mt, or a 2.9% reduction, to 4.8Gt.
Much of this progress has, admittedly, resulted from the US fracking boom that began during the Obama years. Electricity generated from natural gas was up 22% in 2019 compared with 2017, having equally grown 22% between 2014 and 2016 during Obama’s second term.

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However, the 20% decline in coal generation between 2017 and 2019 is also similar to the 22% fall seen during the last three years of Obama’s administration, and renewables continued to grow steadily under Trump. At the end of 2020, renewable energy sources accounted for around 23.52% of the country’s installed generating capacity, shows the latest data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, up from 17.53% in 2015. These trends are a world away from the economic boom fuelled by “beautiful, clean coal” that Trump promised.

‘Economics always wins’

Indeed, an increasing number of coal plants closed in each of the first three years of Trump’s presidency, reveal US Energy Information Administration (EIA) records. The pandemic-induced economic downturn has only accelerated the sector’s decline. US coal power generation plummeted by 30% between the first half of 2019 and the first half of 2020.

The decline in US coal is largely down to economics. High commodity costs and maturing renewable technologies mean generating electricity with coal is now significantly more expensive than doing so with gas, wind or solar PV. Research by US bank Lazard places the cost of each power source in 2020 at $112, $59, $40 and $37 a kilowatt-hour, respectively.

The low price of wind and solar has driven generation capacity growth – respectively making up 9.42% and 4.16% of total US generational capacity in November 2020, compared with 6.03% and 1.16% five years previously. The US now has a net operating wind capacity of 110.32GW provided by 1,390 wind power plants across the country, and a net operating solar capacity of 43.42GW provided by 4,193 solar power plants, shows the EIA’s inventory of operating power generators.

“The renewables sector has grown substantially throughout the four years of Trump, despite the significant headwinds his administration has sought to conjure,” says Gregory Wetstone, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy. “We saw record levels of investment in renewables in 2019, with $60bn invested in wind, solar and related enabling technologies in the US.”

Jeff Swenerton, from San Francisco-based NGO the Center for Resource Solutions, adds: “Renewables have become the cheapest way to bring new electricity generation online in many areas of the country. The outgoing administration threw up some roadblocks, including an attempt to classify coal power as a national security issue – but economics always wins.”

Wall Street has certainly favoured clean energy utilities and green tech companies during Trump’s presidency. Shares in NextEra Energy – a Florida-based utility that is the largest operator of wind and solar power in the world – nearly tripled in value over the past four years. It rallied 27.4% in 2020 alone, more than making up for losses incurred during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The opposite story is true for fossil fuel companies that have failed to invest in technologies other than traditional oil and gas extraction. ExxonMobil – a decade ago the world’s most valuable company – was worth $190bn at the start of 2020, compared with $360bn at the start of 2017, and a peak of $530bn in 2007. Investors have continued to back the transition to clean energy as the most logical economic path to follow, irrespective of rhetoric from the White House.

Companies meeting the challenges

Many hundreds more solar and wind plants are planned up to 2027, with a combined capacity of around 75GW – equivalent to about 7% of current US generational capacity. In the absence of federal renewables programmes, much of the growth is being instigated by private companies.

“Major companies committing to transition to renewable power has been critically important in keeping our sector growing,” says Wetstone. “Direct corporate procurement of renewable power has become a global phenomenon, but it began in the US under President Obama and has continued to accelerate under the Trump administration.”

“Companies were responding to what their customers wanted to see, as well as the energy prices that were available,” says Wetstone. “There may well also be some part of it that is responsive to the federal government not playing a leadership role.”

Globally, the number of businesses pursuing a net-zero emissions target by the end of the century grew threefold in 2020, says the Data-Driven EnviroLab and the NewClimate Institute, to 1,541 compared with 500 the previous year. US companies are leading this drive, with the likes of Apple, Ford, Microsoft, Verizon, Starbucks and NIKE all making zero-carbon pledges this year.

“Net-zero pledges are now very much a benchmark for a variety of state and non-state actors alike,” says Verena Radulovic, who manages the Business Environmental Leadership Council at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Virginia-based NGO. “Twenty-eight of our 37 members have a net-zero goal. Half of those got announced in the last six months.” The Council represents leading companies, with combined emissions of around 6% of the US total, who have committed to developing effective solutions to climate change.

“Decarbonisation of the private sector is, in part, being enabled by the low cost of renewables and, for certain companies, a desire to meet increasing consumer demand for low-carbon policies,” says Radulovic.

As companies, especially consumer-facing brands, watch their competitors try to meet consumer wants, they are spurred on to undertake ever more stringent responses, further accelerating decarbonisation, she adds.

“The public is getting more familiar with issues around climate change and is developing a greater understanding of what is an appropriate response,” says Radulovic. “This encourages companies to be ambitious. Earlier this year, [the ride-hailing app] Lyft set a goal of having an all-electric fleet of vehicles by 2030. Uber then followed with a similar goal. It is exciting: there is more competition when it comes to clean energy and the market is meeting the challenges.”

States stepping up

Individual state energy policies were another major force driving the transition under Trump. Texas – usually associated with Republican politics and an economy based on oil exploration – is now the US leader for wind power and the world’s fifth-largest wind market. Wind accounted for 18% of the electricity generated in the state in 2019.

“There are now really ambitious state and local programmes to promote renewable power, and these popular initiatives are rapidly spreading across the US,” says Wetstone. “Fifteen states have now committed to 100% carbon-free electricity generation, by varying deadlines, and they tend to be the most populous states in the country, which means they use the bulk of the nation’s electricity.”

However, while state authorities have picked up some slack left by federal leadership, this only goes so far. “I don’t think we realised anywhere near the potential we could have with a supportive administration,” says Wetstone. “If we want to achieve the level of greenhouse emission reductions that scientists say we will need to protect our planet, we need to accelerate renewable energy growth with supportive federal policies.”

Swenerton agrees. “The big picture is this: we are not moving fast enough on the big goal, which is reducing CO2 emissions. Renewable energy is crucial and we need to be moving even faster on deployment. The economics are there – ask your neighbour charging their EV from solar panels on the roof. Burning things is expensive, collecting wind and sunlight just isn’t anymore.”

While it may not be too late for Biden’s $2trn climate plan to claw back some of this lost ground nationally, it will take longer to rebuild international relationships around climate action.