On climate, what the US needs to do
Joe Biden has done well to rejoin the Paris accord. But his administration will have to overcome Trumpism, take responsibility for historic emissions, and change energy consumption patterns at home
It is true that things can change dramatically with the stroke of a pen. With Donald Trump out of office, hours after taking over office, newly elected United States (US) President Joe Biden has signed an order to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change. With this, the denial of this existential threat to the planet is now past. And we can move decisively to action. Or, so we must hope.
The fact is the world is hurtling towards a climate catastrophe. We know today that global temperatures have risen — beyond any doubt — and that, as a result, weird weather events are intensifying. All this, already, is showing up as devastating and debilitating impacts — from forest fires to unseasonal and extreme rain events to intensification of tropical cyclones.
We also know that the spiral of temperature rise is linked to greenhouse gas emissions — gases that come mainly from burning fossil fuels, the engines of economic growth. So, tackling the climate crisis requires transformation of the energy systems of the world, moving away from coal, oil and gas to other more benign sources such as solar or wind. But it’s a tough call. And in spite of all the talk and even the commitment to action, the world has been unable to do this at the scale and speed needed. It is made even tougher because the battle against the climate crisis is not only about mitigating emissions nationally. It is also about sharing a finite atmospheric space between nations. This is because greenhouse gas emissions are long-lived; carbon dioxide, for instance, has a full life in the atmosphere of over 150 years. So, the emissions of the past influence the temperatures of the future.
But for now, let’s take a moment to celebrate the return of the prodigal. There is no doubt that the US re-engagement with climate negotiations will put the agenda back on track. The US is no longer the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (China is), but it has a disproportionate contribution in terms of its past. This one country, with less than 5% of the world’s population, has added over 17% of the carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. So, its role and responsibility, is immense — to act decisively to reduce emissions at home and to provide global leadership.
But this is where we must remain hopeful, but realistic about what is at stake. First, let us be clear that even as team Biden-Kamala Harris won, Trumpism did not lose. What is shocking for most of us, watching from the outside, is just how many votes Trump got; close to half of the US voted for him. He got more votes in 2020 — when the virus is out of control, when he has rejected climate crisis and when he has exacerbated race and gender conflicts — than in 2016. We need to remember this.
Let’s also be clear that, more than ever before, this US election had climate crisis denial or action on the ballot. Trump was belligerent about his opposition to “fake” science. He swore by coal and, more importantly, he pushed his country to manufacture more; made in the USA was his slogan. Pushing against the climate crisis — in spite of the terrible fire and hurricane damage — was his way of putting the economy before all else. This is what Biden-Harris will have to overcome with smart policies and even smarter communication.
Second, the US has always been a renegade nation on taking hard action. In 2015, bowing to US pressure, the Paris Agreement changed the terms of the agreement on climate action fundamentally. Till then, the world had set emission reduction targets based on the responsibility of countries to the stock of emissions in the atmosphere. This created a framework for action — and built the foundations for the cooperative agreement.
But countries such as the US, which had been long-term historical contributors, did not want this deal — it put too much onus on them to make reductions. They wanted to erase the very idea of the past and focus on the need for all to act and for all to take actions based on what they believed they could do. The Paris Agreement succumbed to this idea and agreed that from now on, countries would determine what they would do. This was called the nationally determined contributions (NDC) and even as Paris agreement was graveled down, it was understood that the sum of these NDCs would add up to at least 3°C temperature increase by century end. The US took on the relatively small target to reduce its emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. But then came Trump and even weak NDCs became a desired goal. By 2019, US emissions were higher than 2016, and, currently, it is not on track to meet even these insignificant Paris goals. This is what Biden will inherit. But there is more to this that only good intentions will not fix. The fact is that the US energy sector’s emissions have declined dramatically in the past decade. This is because the US has moved the power sector away from coal to shale and natural gas. In the past decade, it has seen a 50% reduction in coal-generated electricity and roughly 30% reduction in emissions from the energy sector. This is huge.
But, and there is a big but, the fact is that cheap shale gas took off where coal left — and left behind the renewable energy surge as costs of gas have fallen to a record low. As a result of this cheap fuel, other sectors of the US economy are now reversing any gains made from the shift away from coal. Transport-related emissions have overtaken the energy sector’s contribution in the country. So, even though the US is no longer addicted to coal, it is completely sold on the idea of cheap energy. It also wants to reclaim its role as the economic powerhouse and take back its position from China. This will mean burning more fuel for industrial growth, and using more energy will mean negating all the gains of cleaner fuels.
This then is where Biden-Harris will need to work their magic. They need to push for transformational answers in their own backyard. But they will also need to work with other countries, such as India, to arrive at a collaborative agreement that will work for the planet and its people.
The most inconvenient of truths is that at the current levels of emissions, the world will “exhaust” the carbon budget by 2030 for the 1.5°C target. This, when large parts of the world, including India, will need the right to develop — in today’s context where coal and natural gas, both fossil fuels, remain the most competitive fuels, this will mean increase in emissions. So, it is necessary to move towards this transformation in the still emerging world, but there are no enabling conditions that will make this happen. Talk is cheap. Transformation is not. This is what we need to address and fast.
Sunita Narain is director-general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal