If 2015 was the year of the Paris Agreement, then 2016 is the year of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Both Brexit and the election of Trump as the next US president definitely shaped 2016. This is especially when it comes to climate change and the environment, and it will continue to shape developments in 2017 and onwards.
When Britain voted for Brexit on June 23rd, it not only sent shockwaves through the UK but also through the rest of Europe. And it could seriously affect the future of the European project in 2017 as the French, Germans, and Dutch go to the polls, and quite likely Italians also. A victory for populist parties in those countries could send the European project into crisis.
Post Brexit, it is very unclear what the UK’s relationship with Europe will look like. It is also unclear what it will mean for UK’s climate and environment policies, including targets to reduce emissions and increase renewable energy in the electricity mix. Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will trigger the now famous Article 50 before the end of March. And only then can negotiations with the EU begin. These could go on for a maximum of two years before, as projected, the UK will formally leave the EU in early 2019.
Across the pond, in the US there is, if possible, even more uncertainty. If you care about climate change things do not look good. President-Elect Trump has picked a cabinet consisting of climate change deniers and fossil fuel executives, so it is hard to see any future positive contribution by the world’s previously largest and by now the second largest CO2 emitter. This happens just as the US had started to make inroads on this issue after two terms with Barack Obama. We have a political landscape with a Republican controlled Congress and with a Republican president hostile to action on climate change. This does not leave much hope, apart from delaying proceedings as much as possible and the hope that the 2018 mid-term elections might change the political landscape. Any changes to Obama’s climate laws could be opposed through the courts, and some Republicans might be persuaded to join the Democrats in not accepting at least some members of the Trump cabinet, as they all have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Many environmentalists will look back at 2016 as not the greatest year for their cause, and they will undoubtedly be glad to see the back of it. But what might 2017 bring ?. Politics is a funny game, and if 2016 has shown us anything it is how quickly all can change. Many people might take encouragement from the result of the Austrian election where a former Green Party candidate defeated the far-right candidate. But if environmentalists are looking for positive messages it would be that although there are undoubted worries about what Trump and Brexit will mean for the environment and action on climate change. Globally, however, the clean energy revolution seems unstoppable, and if the US drops the climate baton, it is likely to be picked up by China.