Great expectations: The new administration will have to contend with a divided congress and a conservative Supreme Court in its fight to deliver climate action | Photo: InDepth News (IDN)

No more climate denial in the White House

All eyes are on US President-elect Joe Biden as he fights fires on several fronts. Question is, how will he deliver on climate change while walking a political tightrope?

Almost four years ago, days after the Paris Agreement’s early entry into force, the celebratory optimism of the global climate movement was cut short by the election of climate denier Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America. At the 22nd UN climate conference going on at the time in Marrakech, sure-footed confidence abruptly collapsed into chaos as news of Trump’s election washed over the venue.  Hope, in real time, turned to palpable horror. Suddenly, the potentially disastrous ramifications came into focus and success of the Agreement seemed more out of reach than ever.

This fortnight, days after the US formally completed the process of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the United States of America elected Joe Biden as its 46th President. Victory has earned Biden charge of leading the country out of a number of crises — from the COVID-19 pandemic to systemic racism and rapidly worsening climate change. On social media and in the global climate movement, Biden has been hailed as the ‘new climate president’, who undoubtedly has a mammoth task ahead to undo much of the damage done by Donald Trump.

US’ climate action story so far

Under Trump, America found itself largely isolated from the rest of the world, especially on the issue of climate change. From the moment he was elected, Trump backtracked on some key climate initiatives undertaken by his predecessor Barack Obama — chief among them was the exit from the historic Paris Agreement that binds countries to limit warming to less than 2°C. If he thought other countries would follow suit, the verdict was unanimous — addressing the climate crisis was the need of the hour and the Paris Agreement was the best first step the world needs to take in that direction.

With help at the federal level hard to come by, the issue was being tackled at local levels in the US with states, cities, businesses, universities taking a bottom’s up approach under the America’s Pledge initiative. The coalition, which claims to represent around two-thirds of the US’ GDP and population, continued to back the Paris Agreement despite Trump’s decision and its 2019 report estimated 37% emissions reductions below 2005 levels by 2030 with significantly expanded action and 49% emissions reductions below 2005 levels by 2030 with aggressive federal reengagement starting in 2021. It identified five key sectors with the greatest 2030 emission reduction opportunities, namely electricity, transportation, buildings, methane, and HFCs.

So where does all this leave Biden? With many states, cities and businesses already playing their part, the President-elect needs to join in and play his part, say experts.  “Sub-national groups, like California, are going to do much more when Biden is president and he adopts an ambitious climate agenda. No doubt about that,” says Jerry Brown, former four-term Governor of California, who co-launched America’s Pledge, the U.S. Climate Alliance and the Under2 Coalition to spur and quantify subnational climate action toward the Paris Agreement. “How do they work internationally? The Under 2 Coalition, which is now in its 5th year, involves a third of the population of the world. So we have the framework, all we need is Joe Biden to bite the bullet, to be powerful, and then we need him to work with other leaders. We need to transcend the US/China antagonism. It’s not just Biden, but Biden is the first step. Sub-nationals can do more of what they’re doing because they will have federal backing.”

A vital obstacle for Biden when it comes to global climate action is to get the US back in the game by regaining the world’s trust lost under Trump. Biden has already made his intentions of rejoining the Paris Agreement clear. The US formally withdrew from the pact on November 4 this year, three years after Trump first pledged to make the move. Biden quickly tweeted his commitment to rejoin the day he is sworn-in. It would still take a year for the US to officially get a seat at the table, but because it was the only country to walk out, its rejoining is unlikely to impact global climate action.

Mission emission

What is likely to create an impact, however, is the climate target that Biden sets for the US. Biden has promised a net zero emissions by 2050 target, which, according to analysis by Climate Action Tracker, could reduce end-century warming projections by about 0.1°C, and bring the Paris goals ‘within striking distance’. “People will give the Biden Administration some time to get themselves sorted out. But I think it would be difficult for the US to start engaging and sort of telling everyone else what to do if it isn’t coming out with its target itself. I think it would need to be coming out with its target before COP26 in Glasgow. So it’s got a few months, but it doesn’t have an awful lot of time,” says Rachel Kyte, Dean of The Fletcher School, who previously served as special representative of the UN Secretary-General and chief executive officer of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and was the former WorldBank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change.

With China’s recent net-zero by 2060 announcement, followed closely by Japan and South Korea, if Biden follows through with his plan, this would mean that countries producing half of the world’s global emissions would have pledged net-zero by 2050. The China and US pledges alone would be enough to bring down global heating to about 2.3°C to 2.4°C by the end of the century, according to Climate Action Tracker, which is about 25-40% of the effort to limit it to 1.5°C.

Ambitious goals

“Biden as President is going to have to call on all his political skills and all his empathy and all his rhetorical skills, because he has to lay out the vision but then behind the scenes, he’s got to bring into the White House bankers, businessmen, oil executives – the whole power structure of capitalist America – and he’s got to get the ones who are on-board for climate action to push the ones who are not – and then get the kind of financial support to help those who are being diminished as we move off of carbon,” says Brown.

If looked at in its entirety, Biden’s ambitious climate action plan does hit the right notes – for the most part. Apart from the Paris Agreement and climate target, Biden has pledged 1.7 trillion towards the US’ green recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. His plan also aims to rid the power sector of carbon pollution by 2035 — which is massive considering the US has the largest reserves of coal on the planet. But some experts think this goal falls way short of helping prevent irreversible climate change. He has also pledged to improve the energy efficiency of buildings — in particular upgrade four million commercial buildings and weatherise two million homes in four years. But a Colorado-based energy research organisation found this pledge would achieve just a fraction of what is required to achieve the Paris goals.

Biden’s plan also envisages a revitalisation of the auto industry by leading the electric vehicles’ revolution. He plans to do this by building 500,000 new public charging outlets by the end of 2030 and restore the full electric vehicle tax credit to incentivise their purchase. What remains unclear, however, is how he plans to phase out cars powered by fossil fuels.

He did speak about ‘transitioning from the fossil-fuel industry’ in one of the presidential debates, but later clarified that ‘we are not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time’ because it would mean a massive job loss. He also said his administration would end subsidies on fossil fuels and instead give them out to renewables. But when it comes to the controversial process of fracking, the president-elect’s stand has been ambiguous, at best. Biden opposed a complete ban, but has instead proposed disallowing it on federal lands.

Internationally, Biden has his eyes set on China and has pledged to stop the country from subsidising coal and outsourcing carbon pollution — primarily through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He vows to help BRI countries find ‘alternate sources of development financing for low-carbon energy investments’.

The perils of a divided system

Biden’s policies do have the potential to push the US to the front of the line once again when it comes to climate action, but he inherits a divided system. A most-likely Republican senate and a largely conservative Supreme Court may make proposals, climate and otherwise, harder to pass. Case in point: Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had to issue executive orders to implement the Clean Power Act for the power sector, which were blocked by the Supreme Court. Trump’s latest appointee to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, in her confirmation hearing, called climate change ‘a very contentious matter of public debate’. She joins five other conservative judges in the Supreme Court, who will decide on issues such as the legality of climate regulations for polluters and whether oil companies need to pay for their climate impacts. 

In his first speech as president-elect, Biden called upon his fellow Americans to marshal the ‘force of science’ in the ‘battle to save our planet’. It is an uphill task that can be achieved only if the world’s second-largest polluter is able to rise above its fractious politics.

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