September 25, 2019
Joe Biden has promised that the US will rejoin the Paris climate agreement on January 20 2021, assuming he takes the oath to become the next POTUS that day. But that will be just the first step on an uphill climb, during which he will be opposed by the Senate all the way. Without a democratic majority in the Senate, US action on climate change in three key areas will have to be made through executive decisions.
Investment in renewables
The first area is domestic action to push renewables, and this may be the easiest. Various states including Republican Texas are already pushing renewables hard, and a Biden administration is unlikely to face serious opposition on this score. During his campaign, Biden repeatedly promised a USD 2 trillion federal spend to boost green jobs and get renewables to power the entire electricity grid by 2035. The plan includes a boost for electric vehicles and energy-efficient housing. While this may too much for Congress to swallow, part of the stimulus can be provided through the proposed Covid-19 recovery package.
It will be more difficult to reduce incentives to fossil fuels, as many Biden supporters want. More difficult still is Biden keeping his promise to ban the Keystone pipeline from the oil sands of Canada – something he may put on the back burner. And Biden has not supported a wide ban on fracking.
Another contentious move would be to add greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the list of pollutants under the Clean Air Act. There is every possibility that such an addition would be challenged in court, and a federal Supreme Court with a conservative majority is unlikely to support such a change in law. It looks like Biden will disappoint many of his supporters by not making a move in this direction in the near future.
But if the Biden administration wants to get aggressive on climate action, it can find strength in recent opinion polls, where 70% of all Americans repeatedly said they want their government to do more about the climate crisis.
Funding climate research
The second big area is funding climate research and rebuilding the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One only has to look at the difference in the number of academic papers and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change authors before and during the Trump era to realise the truth of what one Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher had told The Third Pole in 2018: “I’m sitting broke in an empty laboratory while my doctoral students move to Europe.”
Over three decades, the US produced so many top climate researchers that the near-cessation of their output in the past four years has affected climate science globally. Executive decisions by a Biden White House can do a lot to restore funding to universities and laboratories. It can do a lot more with the support of Capitol Hill, but that is unlikely. Climate research will continue to be underfunded in the US for at least two more years.
But at least the White House can repopulate the EPA with competent people. A strong EPA can get a lot done, even with existing laws – even after Trump rolled back at least 80 environmental regulations.
Undoing the Trump legacy through executive decisions entails the risk that a future Republican administration will overturn these decisions once more. But it does not look like Biden has much choice.
Consequences for global ambition
The real struggle will be in the third area: the global war against climate change. Devastation caused by hurricanes, floods and wildfires in their own country do not seem to move most Republicans. Clearly, devastation in other countries moves them even less. It is worth noting that the climate change section of the four priority areas identified by the Biden-Harris campaign is the one with the greatest detail on international relations.
Regardless, the frequency of storms, floods, droughts and wildfires around the world will only accelerate unless all countries rein in their GHG emissions. The US plays a leading role, since it remains the world’s second-highest GHG polluter. When the US re-enters the Paris agreement in 2021, the biggest question facing the Biden administration how big a cut in GHG emissions will it pledge to make? Related to that, what will be the value of a pledge made through an executive decision in the face of opposition from the Senate?
When the US joined the Paris agreement during the Obama administration, it pledged to reduce its GHG emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. There is little possibility of meeting this now. Net US GHG emissions in 2019 were higher than at the end of 2016, when Trump took over.
The original deadline for renewed pledges was the end of 2020, but most countries have not met this, and the deadline will almost certainly be extended.
The US’s fresh GHG emission cuts pledge will have a major impact on other countries. China has promised to go carbon neutral by 2060. The EU, Japan and South Korea have given themselves a 2050 deadline. But many developed and emerging economies are waiting to see what the US will do. That includes India, the world’s fourth-largest GHG emitter.
During his campaign, Biden did say his presidency would work to make the US carbon neutral by 2050. That target is both ambitious and credible, and will enthuse other governments, particularly if it got Senate backing.
However, under the Paris agreement, the US will have to provide a nearer-term target – what it will do by 2030. It will be tougher for Biden to push that through. But without it, longer-term promises will ring hollow.
Other countries have moved during the four Trump years. India’s big push on renewables has led to the point where solar is the cheapest source of power when the sun is shining, and even round-the-clock electricity from renewables will be price-competitive with coal-generated electricity in about two years. As Ajay Mathur, head of The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, put it, “The US needs to quickly catch up and demonstrate its climate leadership through action, and not just through words.”
The history of global climate negotiations shows there is one thing the Republicans need not fear: American negotiators will not move an inch if they can even imagine an adverse impact on the US economy. This is bipartisan. Since the Clinton administration days – when global climate negotiations started under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – American negotiators have opposed any move they think can place US businesses at a disadvantage.
Trump made a spectacle of pulling out of the Paris accord, but it is not the first global climate accord the US has quit. That was the Kyoto Protocol, which the Clinton administration signed. But the government under George Bush junior did not ratify it, effectively killing the agreement.
As Sunita Narain, head of think tank the Centre for Science and Environment, writing in their magazine, Down to Earth, recalled, “The Congress passed the Byrd-Hagel amendment instead, requiring any future American involvement in climate change agreements to be matched by equivalent commitments by developing country parties.”
The 2015 Paris agreement was designed keeping this amendment in mind. It killed the long-standing principle that rich countries, which had put most of the GHGs into the atmosphere, had a bigger responsibility to clean up the mess. Despite that, Trump’s main objection was that it would impose too high a cost on the US economy.
Regardless of who is president, US negotiators have ensured that will not happen. Every year, the American delegation to the UNFCCC summit includes a battery of lawyers who go through every word and punctuation mark of every draft decision to ensure that it does not affect the US adversely. They held up the Paris agreement by more than a day because they insisted on changing a “shall” to a “should” on the matter of helping developing countries deal with climate change impacts.
US negotiators will continue to play hardball under a Biden administration. But as greener economic alternatives become more attractive, that may not be in the best interests of their country.