Keep Calm and Carry On: A very British response to Trump’s withdrawal?

Richard Youngman

When President Trump was elected last November, and again when he was inaugurated in January, I found lots of people wondering and asking out loud how detrimental would this seemingly anti-climate change, pro-fossil fuel President be to the more positive momentum the sustainable innovation world has been feeling of late.

Such momentum was built on improving economics and market dynamics for the solution set, built on improving technology and lessons learned from the “gold rush” mentality of cleantech 1.0. The Paris Agreement was but a part, not a whole, of the sentiment shift of the last 2-3 years. The icing, not the cake.

Is it me, or is it the fact that I am far away right now (in Asia), but last week’s announcement seems to have passed with muted reaction from the innovation world – not the case, of course, in big politics and big company headquarters. A reflection of resignation to this moment that looked likely to come, or a reflection that its impact on the sustainable innovation world might not be so great?

My general attitude is: Keep Calm, and Carry On. That may be the Brit in me, but I think with reasonable cause. Let me explain.

As a citizen of the world, and indeed as the head of a US company, of course I am very disappointed to see Trump’s characterization of the Paris agreement, and his decision to withdraw. It sets the wrong tone and sends all the wrong messages, and it makes it harder for the rest of the countries, but by no means impossible, to keep the spirit of the Accord alive.

Ultimately, I think it is an embarrassment for Brand USA, for its President to be “fine” (his words) to be out and in the company of Syria (in no position to consider anything like this) and Nicaragua (who are not in, only because they do not consider Paris went far enough). But it is what it is – for now.

I don’t think all is doom and gloom, and I expect to see little to no difference in the immediate term. Firstly, it is not like this decision was unexpected. Secondly, it is a statement of intent; as with his wall, his budget, healthcare and travel ban plans, the journey from intent to actuality is not certain and can be protracted.

Keep calm.

Depending on what route to withdraw he chooses to adopt, it might be 2020 before that formally happens – which could mean it never happens as it just could emerge as one of the key issues of his re-election campaign. Imagine that – a US election where climate change is even mentioned!

If I were a long-term investor, I wouldn’t be betting the house on a Trump re-election, or an end to the US involvement in the Paris Accord. Not saying that won’t or can’t happen, just saying it is by no means a given. Responses will be hedged, as we just don’t know right now how this and other factors, some related, some totally unrelated, will play out.

Carry on. 

The US has had very little federal leadership anyway when it comes to de-carbonisation over our 15 years of following the cleantech investment theme. Obama’s efforts and initiatives aside, most of the actions in the US have come from states, cities, private enterprise, and market forces. Their commitments are unlikely to change; if anything, they may increase. Rumours on the street suggest that some of the most significant US foundations are gearing to step up and step in to the void.

Keep perspective.

The Paris agreement has been ratified for little more than 12 months. Investment in innovation was happening long before Paris and will continue, as ultimately this is an economic opportunity. The economics around the cleantech portfolio improve year on year, such that politics (distinct from policies) will have less and less impact. Private investment is already drawn towards areas where the opportunity is not a bet on the ever-changing winds of policies and politics. This means even some Trump states have seen record levels of clean energy investment, by the way.

It would be naïve to suggest that there will be no impact. The most obvious uncertainty for the US venture world is what will happen to DOE-funded programs (such as ARPA-E) which have been very important in providing early-stage funding to US start-ups in recent years. The pipeline of future investable opportunities for VCs and corporates could be badly impacted, for sure.

But what an opportunity this might present for economic competitors to get ahead – from neighbours (Canada and Mexico), to trading rivals like China and the European economic block. One or more will surely look to aggressively attract innovation talent and businesses.

If one buys into the notion that the 21st century industrial and energy businesses of the world will be substantially different than their 20th century counterparts, in terms of their energy sources, their usage of natural resources, and their carbon and polluting footprints, then you might believe that President Trump has just put America last. In that frame, let’s see how such countries, US states, and US multi-nationals act. We have seen some announcements, but what and how significant will the actual follow-through be?

All week in Manila, I have been in the company of entrepreneurs from US, Europe, India, China and Southeast Asia. What opportunities abound in Asia for those with the solutions and the willingness to adapt to Asian market dynamics. If I were a US entrepreneur right now, with an Asian-relevant solution, I’d be shifting my resource allocation, and carrying on.

Keep calm.

All in all, I am disappointed but not totally downcast. This moment of truth has been coming for 8 months. It just arrived and now we will see if the majority of the world – measured in people, GDP, and carbon emissions – prove strong enough to keep progressing the lower carbon and lower polluting future, despite the US’s official current position. I believe they will, and I also believe many US players (ex the White House) will still find a way to play a strong part in it – as they have been doing to date (without much federal leadership).

Innovation is not just about technology; in fact, that is a small part of it. Innovation is about adapting to new situations to find new markets and new sources of funding and opportunity to progress one’s vision. We start that adaptation this week, and we should all be ready to adapt back, if and when the US pendulum swings back in line with the majority world view as articulated by most assessments of the science and the economics.

Let’s keep calm, and carry on?

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