‘The World Is Moving Forward:’ Global Energy Trends Are Defying Trump’s Climate Agenda

November 14, 2019, 4:30 PM UTC

President Donald Trump has railed against the Paris Agreement on climate change, which virtually every country in the world (the U.S. included) signed in 2015 to commit to reining in carbon emissions. He has vowed to boost coal production and bring back coal miners’ jobs. He’s repeatedly expressed his distaste for wind farms, and his White House has sought deep cuts to renewable energy funding. Just last week, he notified the United Nations that he was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris accord—a process that will formally take effect on the day after the 2020 presidential elections.

And then, there is the reality; it bears only passing resemblance to the energy agenda of Trump’s administration.

In the International Energy Agency’s 2019 World Energy Outlook, released in Paris on Wednesday, Trump’s decision to cancel climate targets appears to have little impact on where the U.S. and the world are headed over the next 20 years.

Supporters cheers for Trump during a political rally in 2018 where the president announced weaker coal plant regulations. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Instead, every IEA scenario portrays rich countries, including the U.S., as sharply increasing their use of renewable energy, like solar and wind power and electric vehicles, between now and 2040. The world’s use of renewable energy has doubled since 2000 to 1,391 million metric tonnes last year. Even if governments take no action on climate, it will double again to 2,740 million metric tonnes by 2040. That increase is even sharper in the U.S., where demand for renewable energy has galloped upward this decade, from 24 million metric tonnes in 2010, to 47 million in 2017, and 52 million last year. It could rise to 186 million metric tonnes by 2040, according to the IEA. And perhaps the biggest losers of all: Those coal miners whose jobs Trump has vowed to save. Globally, “we do not see coal increasing,” the IEA’s chief energy modeler Laura Cozzi told reporters in Paris on Wednesday. “We do not see coal growing anymore.”

No saving U.S. coal

The IEA’s flagship annual report—807 pages this year—is widely regarded by governments and energy analysts across the world as the most comprehensive guide to global energy production and needs, and the best predictions of future trends.

In a yearly tradition, the IEA outlines three scenarios for the next decades: What will happen if governments continue their existing energy policies; if they strictly adhere by commitments they made during the Paris negotiations to keep global warming under a 2-degree-Celcius increase this century from pre-industrial levels; or if they greatly increase those commitments to keep global warming at 1.5 degree Celcius—a “sustainable scenario” that would require hugely ambitious, costly new programs but would effectively ensure the world’s long-term security.

In all three of the IEA scenarios, there appears to be no saving U.S. coal, despite Trump’s promises.

Globally, coal production is doing well—just not in rich countries; Germany, for example, shut several coal mines last year, and plans to end coal use completely by 2038. Many millions of people still depend heavily on coal to heat their homes and for cooking, especially in countries in Africa and Asia, where electricity is spotty or non-existent. The world’s coal production rose from 3,255 million metric tonnes in 2000 to 5,566 million last year, according to the IEA report.

But the picture is drastically different in the U.S., where coal production crashed from 824 million metric tonnes in 2000 to 576 million last year. There is no reversing that trend, according to the IEA report. By 2040, Americans’ demand for coal will drop to just 9% of all energy—down from 14% last year—and perhaps dip even further if a future U.S. president reverses Trump’s policies aimed at reviving the industry.

Firms like Amazon have committed to ambitious climate goals. Here, the sun sets on the Amazon Wind Farm Fowler Ridge in Indiana. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“There is a recognition that despite Trump’s withdrawal [from the Paris Agreement] the world is moving forward,” Hannah McKinnon, program director of energy transitions and futures for the Washington-based climate organization Oil Change International, told Fortune on Wednesday. “Trump is incredibly isolated on the global stage right now on climate,” she says. “A lot of governments and agencies are stepping up on questions of renewable investments.”

So too are U.S. states and American companies, many of whom have committed themselves to drastic carbon-emissions rollbacks, no matter what the U.S. official policy is. As one example, Jeff Bezos announced in September that Amazon would use 100% renewable energy by 2030. The IEA report says that by 2040, Americans will get about one-quarter of their total energy from hydropower, bioenergy, and renewables like solar and wind power, both of which have become drastically cheaper to install in the past few years.

“In the U.S., there is a strong record of investment in different technologies, including a range of clean technologies,” Tim Gould, the IEA’s Head of Division for Energy Supply and Investment Outlooks, told Fortune. “The power mix has changed very substantially. There is a lot of investment going on into innovative approaches, like [carbon] storage technology,” he says. “A lot of that pioneering work is coming from the U.S.”

All about oil

Despite all that, oil, the greatest source of carbon emissions, is still the world’s favorite energy source, and will be heavily used for decades to come. In fact—despite all the vaunted environmental promises by governments—global carbon emissions hit a record high last year.

One reason, according to the IEA, is people’s rocketing use of SUVs, not only in the U.S., but in Europe and Asia too. The organization says SUVs were the second biggest source of carbon emissions after aircraft last year, and accounted for about 42% of all cars sold. “We read a lot about electric cars,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol told reporters on Wednesday, “but our report shows the transformation in the automobile industry is SUVs.”

Another reason is the U.S. shale revolution. That has driven down the price of oil, and turned the U.S., the world’s biggest energy consumer, into its biggest producer of oil and gas too, outstripping even Middle East oil giants like Saudi Arabia. That is a stunning reversal from the early days of the IEA, which was formed in 1974 by big industrial countries to avert major shortages following the Middle East oil crisis.

“If we look back at energy history, in 1970 it seemed to many that the U.S. oil and gas production had peaked,” Gould told Fortune. “Even 10 years ago it would have been almost unthinkable that the U.S. would be a net exporter of oil and gas. And yet that is what is happening today.”

That is one dramatic change that is likely to remain for decades—no matter who is in the White House.

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This story was updated to correct the date of the Paris Agreement signing.