Trump: A choice for backward-looking energy policy

Trump is a major setback for US energy innovation and international climate policy, says Claudia Kemfert.

The US election was not merely a vote between Democrats and Republicans, between left and right or man and woman, it was much more. This election was a choice between past and future. Nowhere was this more obvious than in energy and climate politics.

Donald Trump stands for the past. In his campaign, he repeatedly fought for the energy policy of bygone days, the energy policy of a quarter century ago. Coal, nuclear, oil: he intends to preserve the energies of the “good old days” as long as possible. The future does not exist for him. No wonder he rejects all serious scientific forecasts and says he will terminate the hard-won international climate agreement, which the US has already ratified. Trump’s defiant and ignorant answer: shut your eyes and set your sights on the past!

Hillary Clinton, in contrast, stands for the future. As president, she would have strengthened renewable energies, developed the climate treaty further and made the economy and society fit for future digitalisation and decentralisation of the energy system.

Depending on the technology the president supports in the coming years, the most powerful nation in the world could either actively shape technology innovation in competition with other nations, or sleep through the changes and miss out entirely. Now it is clear: the US will lose many years in the competition for the most innovative technologies. This is a disaster in so many ways.

The competition has already begun. Coal and nuclear technologies belong to the past. Just as we now rarely use coal stoves to heat our homes, in a few decades we will no longer use coal to produce electricity. What made wallpaper grey and sooty also harms the environment outside. Moreover, coal mining in the US causes severe environmental and health damages, even before it is burned and heavy impacts are reduced by modern filters.  These greenhouse gases not only harm the environment, they also heavily burden the climate.  Damages from coal technology are borne out in the form of pollution, but also as economic costs.

Nuclear energy also bears serious costs. The construction and decommissioning of nuclear reactors cannot be financed economically, and this leaves behind a legacy of dangerous nuclear waste for future generations. As in Germany, the US, too, has not yet solved the question of where to store its nuclear waste. There is no final nuclear repository.

Trump’s vision is blind to the obvious. While the energy systems of the 20th century were based on centralised and inflexible structures, their future is small scaled and decentralised – a trend that is already well underway in many parts of the world. It is based on a smart connection of volatile, flexible storage options and intelligent energy management and savings technologies. Past approaches and technologies do not fit into this new and innovative energy world. One thing is clear: coal and nuclear power plants are not flexible enough for this new system.

Even China, erroneously classified as an emerging country that lags behind industrialised countries technologically, is more progressive. China today supports more energy from renewables than from coal – even if motivated more by local air pollution than climate change. The times have changed dramatically: even China now promotes climate protection policies and recently warned Donald Trump against terminating the climate treaty. This is not green idealism but pure economic interest. China wants to win the technology competition.

Hillary Clinton wanted this too. She recognised that the new energy world was marked by decentralisation, flexibility and intelligence, and that the course for this transformation had already been set. She also saw renewable energy as a chance for greater democracy. Citizens can participate directly in the energy transition, producing their own solar energy or using private combined heat and power systems. Their electric car battery can provide regionalised storage capacity, creating decentralised networks and energy markets with “blockchain” technology.

These new energy systems offer huge economic chances. California is a shining example: the state produces world-class electric cars and battery storage systems and solar roof tiles for homes. A key aim for politicians is also to reduce import dependency on oil-producing countries, many of which are governed by autocratic rulers, and to avoid wars over oil and uranium. This is the vision of a democratic, future-oriented and economically efficient energy transition. This rosy outlook has now been obscured by Trump’s victory.

The US had the choice between authoritarianism, insularity and small-mindedness or the future, intelligence and participation. It was also a choice between the nostalgic rejection of progress and the will to face the future. In short: it was an election between yesterday and tomorrow, especially in energy and climate policy. Disastrously, it has chosen the past. This is not just a disaster for its own energy transition, but especially for international climate policy. The Paris agreement was a good start, especially as the US and China have already ratified it. Now climate protection will be postponed, but climate change will happen anyway. The consequences are extreme climate events and huge economic losses. The US has made a bad choice, and it is a dark day for the energy transition and global climate policy.