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Low carbon transition 'here to stay' despite US exit from Paris deal

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The decision by Donald Trump to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change is unlikely to derail the momentum behind the transition away from fossil fuels, according to investors and observers.

They argued that the US in fact stood to lose out the most due to the decision, while China was poised to benefit.

In a video address, Philippe Desfossés, chief executive of ERAFP, France’s €27bn civil service pension scheme, said that the decision was “a very sad event”, but large companies would continue to invest in the transition to low carbon.

Tom Sanzillo – director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and a former first deputy comptroller for New York State, where he had oversight of its $150bn-plus pension fund – said Trump had made a “bad business decision” and that the US would lose out on opportunities from the growth of the renewable sector in the US and abroad.

Investors should demand new fossil-fuel-free investment products from investment managers and be prepared to deploy them as they see fit, he added. 

Georgina Laird, sustainable investment analyst at Kames Capital, said it was too late to slow the adoption of environmentally-friendly technologies: “The genie is already out of the bottle in this respect.”

“From solar power, to wind power to electric vehicles, momentum has been building for some time,” she added. “Barriers to adoption have been falling and returns on investment improving to the point where subsidies are largely no longer necessary.”

In a speech last night, Trump argued he was protecting the US economy by pulling out of the agreement, and said he would seek to renegotiate the deal.

The Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change called Trump’s decision “misguided”.

Stephanie Pfeifer, CEO, said in a statement: “By opting out, the US administration is failing to recognise what is already an inevitable and irreversible direction of travel away from dependence on fossil fuels and towards a low carbon future – with all the jobs, growth and innovation that this entails,” it said.

Nico Aspinall, a consultant and chair of the resource and environment board of the UK’s Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, said backing out of the agreement would amount to Trump “effectively consigning the American century to history, and guaranteeing that they will be on an import-only basis from here on in”.

“In the long run this will take the exorbitant privilege from the dollar, and presumably give it to the renminbi,” he said.

Others also noted that China – which has been positioning itself as a leader on climate change – stood to benefit from Trump’s decision.

China has been “amply filling the US’s shoes on climate change issues”, said Cindy Rose, Aberdeen Asset Management’s head of responsible investing.

Karine Hirn, partner and senior adviser at East Capital, an asset manager specialised in emerging and frontier markets, said Chinese companies represented a third of the global universe for environmental protection investment opportunities. Investors’ interest could shift to China after its onshore market was recently opened to foreign investors, she said. 

The withdrawal mechanics

There are two main ways in which the US could withdraw from the Paris Agreement, according to Matt Christensen, global head of responsible investment at AXA Investment Managers.

One is to withdraw from the Paris accord only, which any party to the deal can do four years after it has become effective for that party.

The other option would be to exit the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which covers the Paris pact and other treaties. This option “would be faster but more extreme” and is likely to require support from the US Congress, according to Christensen. 

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