×

Officials say they're still positive: The future of clean energy is bright — with or without the US

The future of clean energy is bright — with or without the U.S. leading the way.

That's at least the message coming from government ministers and business leaders who gathered in Beijing for a three-day clean energy forum. The annual Clean Energy Ministerial Meeting, initiated by members of Barack Obama's administration seven years ago, is being hosted by China this year.

The decision of President Donald Trump to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement was top of mind at the conference. The vast majority attempted to shrug off Trump's announcement while emphasizing the importance of the longer term goal of investing in energy sources that are meant to leave a lighter footprint on the planet.

"[Trump's decision] has had a galvanizing effect. At this conference, we have seen a new commitment to Paris and a real sense of determination — not only by federal but state governments and the private sector," Adnan Amin, director-general for the International Renewable Energy Agency, told CNBC.

Nearly 200 countries signed up for the landmark Paris accord in 2015 to fight climate change. Former President Obama has been a major proponent of the agreement.

Protesters carry signs during the Peoples Climate March at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 29, 2017.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
Protesters carry signs during the Peoples Climate March at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 29, 2017.

The deep divide over the U.S. role was evident in the American representatives in attendance. U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry arrived for the event after stopping in Tokyo, where he insisted America would not back down from its role as a leader on climate issues. Perry has been an advocate for the fossil fuels industries.

In contrast, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a fierce critic of Trump's decision, argued that the threat of climate change could be more dangerous than the fascism the world saw during World War II.

Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr told CNBC he believed states such as California would likely pick up the mantle for clean energy investment and other environmental matters in the U.S. Carr also praised China's efforts to become a leader in clean energy.

"I'm particularly happy to be here in China and to see just how much investment the Chinese government is devoted to clean technologies and renewable sources of energy," he said.

Beijing reiterated its commitment to the Paris accord after Washington pulled out last week. China is one the biggest investors in renewable energy solutions. Its policies, however, have had a spotty record. Despite more than a decade of investing in solar and wind, the country still relies heavily on coal and is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Perry has called on China to step in and take a larger role on climate matters. Clean energy supporters such as Amin of IRENA expressed hope Perry will continue to see the benefits of nurturing a clean energy industry back home, including in Texas — Perry's home state.

"Texas is the biggest wind state in the U.S. and what Texas has been able to achieve with renewables is remarkable and I hope [Perry] brings that leadership to the U.S. in terms of [its] clean energy sector," Amin said.

Russia, which has struggled to tap its clean energy potential, also believes America's role in the fight for climate change is still evolving.

"Maybe tomorrow, [the U.S. Energy Secretary] will say another policy — [have] another change in their policy," Anton Inyutsyn, Russian deputy energy minister, told CNBC.

Inyutsyn also weighed in on the outlook of Russia's traditional energy source: oil. He dismissed concerns that Russia might not be committed to coordinated production cuts with OPEC nations.

"As you know, we [made] this decision and will try to keep it during one more period," he said, referring to a recent multi-month renewal of the OPEC agreement. "After that, we will have a meeting and discuss this."