If US President Donald Trump has his way, developing countries will struggle more than ever to clean up their energy programmes.
Clean energy innovation is one of the main casualties of Trump's detailed budget proposal for 2018, released yesterday. It is US research networks that drive the low-carbon innovations that many developing countries benefit from. The budget also includes sharp cuts to international aid as well as spending on climate change adaptation programmes.
Congressional representatives are almost certain to hit back hard on many of Trump’s proposals, so this document does not represent the final outcome of budget negotiations. But the Republican-dominated Congress may, in the end, approve steep cuts to climate programmes that have long been in Trump’s line of fire.
The text is seen as "a continuation of the deeply anti-scientific philosophy of this administration”, said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group.
That philosophy could cripple efforts by developing countries to reduce emissions by switching to clean energy. Entrepreneurship projects in countries in Africa, for example, rely heavily on research and development in the US. When the cuts come in, some projects will need to be scaled back and others may end entirely.
"As the US engages less in research and innovation around clean technology that will have an impact further down the line on many developing economies," said Rob Bradley, director of knowledge and research for the NDC Partnership.
Bradley's initiative, launched last year at the UN climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, is aimed at connecting developed and developing countries and sharing scientific knowledge on emissions reduction to meet universal climate goals. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are the pledges UN climate framework members tabled under the landmark December 2015 Paris Agreement.
Each country has its own unique set of mitigation and adaptation goals, but in the developing world their achievement still depends on money and research from richer nations. For example, while a drastic reduction in the cost of solar power (for the first time last year the cheapest form of new energy) has been in part driven by mass production, research has also played a major part in the process.
"In its National Labs – the 17 flagship research centres operating under the Department of Energy – the US really has an outstanding track record of innovation," said Bradley. “And were they to significantly shrink their activities, that would definitely be a loss hard to replace elsewhere."
Bradley admits that investment in clean energy is likely to keep growing globally despite the proposed cuts in the US, with emerging powers such as China and India seizing the opportunity to become global climate leaders. But he is convinced that the gap left by the US in clean tech research would reverberate for a long time on the global energy industry.
Cleetus was of a similar mindset: "What's really sad is that this is not a big amount of money – it actually is a very small amount of money – and yet it's really crucial for helping developing countries get on a low carbon pathway and helping them cope with the impacts of climate change.”
Trump is proposing cuts to research programmes at the Department of Energy that amount to 18 percent compared to last year – the result of a $1.6 billion reduction in the overall budget and an additional $1.4 billion being moved from general energy research to nuclear weapon technology. Within their broad research remit, the programmes facing cuts also drive innovation in off-grid energy production and energy storage – key for emerging economies struggling with energy access.
Ideas with strong benefits for the developing world such as improved batteries or cheap wind power would be stalled if Congress was to allow the proposed elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) to pass into law. The agency, which traditionally enjoys bipartisan support, is tasked with kick-starting "high risk, high reward" technologies the private sector typically shies away from. Killing it would save American taxpayers a total of only $316 million – a fraction of the extra $1.4 billion being added to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget.
"The idea [behind the ARPA-E model] is for the government to reduce the financial risks associated with new technologies," said Emily Fritze, business development manager with Powerhouse, which focuses on launching and growing solar companies around the world.
Only then can the private sector “scale it up”, she said. “In fact, this is the best example of successful public-private partnership."
Finance for climate change aid and preparedness is also on the chopping board, with the proposed elimination of the Green Climate Fund contribution and the Global Climate Change Initiative. The initiative, a partnership between the State Department and the US Agency for International Development, would be gutted as part of Trump's campaign pledge to put "America first". Total investments in climate change action targeted for elimination amount to $1.59 billion.
Through its climate action programme, USAID addresses climate extremes, such as droughts and floods, as well as ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and other slow onset changes that affect people’s lives.
Should Congress approve a budget that undermines science, said Cleetus, "this would have a major impact on the work that USAID and the State Department are doing in the developing world, from providing capacity-building to technology transfer and more."
She highlighted the importance of incorporating adaptation action plans into development programmes in countries already suffering the consequences of climate change.
"If you see what's unfolding in Africa right now in terms of drought and food shortages, you can see how all these things are interconnected,” she said. “I think it's a big mistake for the Trump administration to think that they can separate climate out and all the other work on health and development can proceed unimpeded."
(TOP PHOTO: US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in 2015. CREDIT: Michael Vadon/Flickr)