Trump the eco-warrior?

Donald Trump recently announced $60 billion tariffs on Chinese imports, following on from the previous week’s announcement of steel and aluminium tariffs. The Financial Times have predicted that this will lead to an (unwinnable) trade war with China.

If this does indeed come to pass, this will have a dramatic impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from shipping represent only 2.5 percent of global emissions, but this is a project to increase by 250 per cent by 2050 due to increased international trade.

Now, unlike, say, electricity generation, we don’t have any viable plan to de-carbonise shipping. Current plans on the table include building new more efficient ships, converting ships to use natural gas rather than oil, or making them more efficient by adding sails.  These measures will only make ships more efficient rather than replace carbon emissions, and the gains in efficiency will be outweighed by increased usage.

In fact, we could run into Jevron’s paradox –making shipping more efficient will stimulate demand. Viable decarbonisation strategies, such as powering ships from hydrogen, are decades away.

To avoid dangerous climate change – if we think that dangerous climate change means limiting temperature increases to 1.5C – we would have to have zero net emissions by 2050. To avoid 2C increased temperature would require around 80 per cent reductions compared to current levels, so the 6.25 per cent of current emissions level that shipping represents will either use up most of the budget, or more than all of the budget, depending on what we are aiming for.

There interposed the Donald – if the USA and China has a trade war, this would seriously dent the amount of global trade and hence use of shipping. And despite the best efforts of their respective governments – one to reduce emissions and the other to increase them, the USA is still much more efficient than China – the USA producing $2,291 of GDP per tonne of carbon compared to China’s $435. So, any shift of production from China to USA would also reduce carbon emissions.

Of course, this does partly reflect the fact that the more advanced USA economy is more service based then China’s, so shifting manufacturing from China to USA would not get such a dramatic reduction in emissions as the unit of GDP figure would suggest. But if China’s economy switched more to services as a resulted of less demand for manufactured goods, that would reduce emissions too.

This of course is entirely inadvertent, by all accounts the man in the White House wouldn’t have the concentration to be able to read this blog, let alone understand it.

However, the widely accepted consensus of the ‘liberal elite’ the people who despise Trump, of which I am a part, is that we need economic growth, we need more trade, tariffs and trade wars are bad. And we also need to take drastic action on climate change and avoid widespread environmental destruction. Yet these positions are incompatible. Perhaps we are the imbeciles, not Trump.

The forthcoming environmental catastrophe stems from our economic system, which is created in the image of our economic ideology, not from cartoon villains likes Trump, the Kochs and the fossil fuel industry. Economic orthodoxy is that we need economic growth to bring people out of poverty. Trade is good for growth, so we need more and more trade for more and more growth. But our planet is not surviving the resultant onslaught; we need a new economic model. Or a new planet.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Peter Arnold says

    We do not need more economic growth. We need a new economic model, one based on private enterprise, public enterprise and community enterprise co-operating to meet the needs of people. These three are the necessary ingredients of a sustainable economic system. Everything else is simply a distraction. The priority now is to grow the community enterprise part of the equation which is based on local production to meet local needs. We know that in every community there are people with the knowledge, skills and experience to grow the community enterprise sector. What is stopping its growth at the moment is the institutional bias in favour of the rich and privileged. They make the laws that keep them rich and privileged; they own the resources that keep them rich and privileged; and they work hard to ensure that they stay rich and privileged. They add little to the quality of life for the majority, for us, and their riches and privileges are what holds back the development of a sustainable and more equitable economic system. Anyone ready for the campaign we need to wage to get a new economic model?

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