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Paris Isn’t the Only Clean Energy Pact the U.S. Is Fleeing

The White House’s deep proposed cuts to energy R&D could cede leadership to China, and derail the international Mission Innovation partnership.

Energy ministers from around the world traveled to Beijing this week for a series of meetings on international efforts to accelerate the shift to clean energy, including the Mission Innovation pact aimed at doubling government funding for research and development.

U.S. energy secretary Rick Perry is attending, but the Trump administration has arguably already staged a de facto exit from the initiative, and has certainly signaled it’s opposed to the goals. The meetings occur just days after President Trump announced plans to withdraw from the landmark Paris climate agreement, and weeks after the White House floated a budget proposal that, far from doubling research funding for the Department of Energy, would slash it by more than $3 billion (see “Exiting Paris, Trump Cedes Global Leadership on Climate Change”).

For some observers, the location and timing of the meetings only reinforce the growing international perception that China has seized the climate leadership role abandoned by the United States.

"This could be a passing of the torch," says Varun Sivaram, acting director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the Energy Ministerial meetings held Tuesday through Thursday at the China National Convention Center. 

Nations pieced together the Mission Innovation pact in 2015, on the sidelines of the Paris climate negotiations, which were focused on emissions reduction goals rather than the technology to get there. Ultimately, 22 countries plus the European Union would sign onto the deal, which sought to “develop and scale breakthrough technologies … to enable the global community to meet our shared climate goals.” China pledged to raise its spending by around $3.8 billion, while the United States committed to increase funding by more than $6 billion by 2021.

Instead, President Trump's fiscal 2018 budget plan slashes spending on energy research, and eliminates two teams in the Office of International Affairs that coordinated partnerships on climate and energy, including the Mission Innovation program.

“It would be felt all across the United States in research universities, national laboratories, and other technology centers that depend on government funding,” said Jonathan Elkind, former assistant secretary of the Office of International Affairs, in an e-mail.

Few think the White House will get anywhere near the level of cuts it has proposed, but equally few believe there will be substantial research funding increases, particularly on the order required to meet the goals of the Mission Innovation pact. The financial commitments were nonbinding, but some fear that if the United States flagrantly abandons its pledges, other participants may too, undermining momentum.

The funding cuts also threaten to undermine the United States’ competiveness on technologies that could prove to be the defining economic force of the decades ahead. Research suggests Mission Innovation funding increases would pay off in the short term as well, with every dollar of clean energy R&D generating $1.60 in additional economic activity, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts and ICF International.

"There's no question in my mind that any cuts, whether they are large or moderate, will harm U.S. economic growth, reduce American energy security, put the United States at a competitive disadvantage, and undermine the nation's ability to reduce greenhouse gases," says Kelly Sims Gallagher, professor of energy and environmental policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement that leaked last week as President Trump was set to withdraw from the Paris deal, China and the European Union committed to “lead the energy transition.” The draft release included pledges to continue investing in clean energy development as well as efforts to help poor nations transition to sustainable sources.

In the end, disputes over trade issues prevented the formal release of a broader communique from the two parties after meetings in Brussels on Friday. But China is clearly signaling it intends to step into the leadership void.

The broader impact of that shift will depend, of course, on how China handles that role. Among other things, the critical criteria will include whether it pushes for stronger or weaker greenhouse gas emissions standards at home and abroad in the years ahead, and how aggressively it prioritizes energy innovation in addition to the incremental improvements that have defined its market success to date in solar and wind, Sivaram says.

There are other differences that could also be crucial, says Josh Freed, vice president for the clean energy program at the centrist think tank Third Way.

“China leading rather than the U.S. detaches climate policy from other core American values, or what has traditionally been core American values, including human rights, democracy and good governance,” he says. “That’s bad for the world.”

As for what happens next with the Mission Innovation pact, Gallagher of Tufts released a report last week recommending that participating nations set performance rather than strictly financial goals, improve collaboration with the private sector, increase data collection and sharing, and prioritize research efforts around areas in most need of improvement, such as energy storage.

Indeed, it will be nearly impossible for the initiative to meet its collective funding goals without major increases from the United States, which made by far the largest pledge, Sivaram and Daniel Sanchez of the Carnegie Institution for Science, noted in an op-ed piece last week. Reframing the metrics of success away from purely financial ones may be necessary to prevent the initiative from unraveling, they argued.

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