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For US President Joe Biden, the long road of climate action begins now

After four years of Donald Trump undermining the UN’s multilateral effort at averting the climate crisis, incoming president Joe Biden’s administration rejoins the Paris Agreement

Washington : President Joe Biden signs three documents including an inauguration declaration, cabinet nominations and sub-cabinet nominations in the President's Room at the US Capitol after the inauguration ceremony, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Vice President Kamala Harris watches at right. AP/PTI(AP01_21_2021_000002B) (AP)

By Bibek Bhattacharya

LAST UPDATED 21.01.2021  |  12:00 PM IST

Ultimately, incoming US President Joe Biden was true to his word. On November 5 last year, the day that the US formally left the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, then-presidential candidate Biden tweeted that if elected, his administration would rejoin the agreement on its first day in office. On January 20, hours after being inaugurated as the 46th President of the US, he signed an executive order committing America to rejoin the agreement.

The Paris Agreement, signed by the world’s governments in 2015, aims to halt catastrophic global heating by limiting temperature rise to less than 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. As the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), that trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere and heats up the planet, the US re-joining the UN-led multilateral effort didn’t come a day too soon. UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the US back into the accord. “I warmly welcome Joe Biden’s steps for the USA to re-enter the Paris Agreement, the global roadmap to tackle the climate emergency. With all countries fully engaged, we have a real opportunity to prevent climate catastrophe & embark on transformative climate action,” he tweeted.

Biden’s presidential campaign was articulate and expansive in setting his climate goals. This includes, apart from rejoining the Paris Agreement, a promise to begin the transition of America’s energy economy away from fossil fuels and an emissions-free power sector by 2035. The administration also claims that it intends to spend $2 trillion (about 150 trillion) towards creating new jobs, upgrading millions of buildings to highest possible energy efficiency levels and investing in solar and wind energy capacities. During his campaign, Biden had also pledged to make the US a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

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Speaking to journalists at an international press call on climate change on January 19, Greenpeace CEO Jennifer Morgan said that Biden won the presidential election on the most ambitious and far reaching climate platform of any US presidential nominee from a major party in history. “So rejoining the Paris Agreement is really the floor, not the ceiling for the Biden administration on climate, and I think we are very hopeful and it’s all to play for,” she added. Morgan also said that it’s possible that climate could play a role in formulating security policies, in the context of global climate politics. “Fossil fuels are like weapons of mass destruction. They need to be kept in the ground,” she said.

Indeed, the Biden administration’s stated climate targets are far more ambitious than even that of the Obama administration, which had aimed to reduce carbon emissions by about 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. According to experts, the Biden administration’s targets could be closer to 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. Morgan says that much has changed since 2016 when Obama left office. “The Obama administration’s last hours were very different than the Biden administration’s first hours are going to be.” She says that in the past four years, despite a climate denier as US President, the world had moved on, and that the US now needs to rejoin international efforts “with humility.” Biden has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate ‘envoy’ and has directed federal agencies to look into reinstating the emissions regulations that had been rolled back under the Trump administration. Biden also plans to convene a climate summit in the next few months.

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Despite these moves, global climate policy watchers are understandably wary, given the US’s earlier volte-face on the Paris Agreement under Trump. Biden will also have a difficult time in passing far-reaching emissions legislation through the US Congress. The Democrats control the House, but the Senate is split at a wafer-thin 50-50 between the Democrats and the Republican. Most of the latter are expected to vociferously oppose any climate legislation.

“I think what the world will be looking for most from the US is first and foremost some serious action at home,” says climate change scholar and policy expert Navroz K. Dubash from the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. He adds that unless the US does this, its international climate efforts will have very little credibility. “I would like to see, not just a net-zero pledge but a clear pathway to achieving it, backed by interim targets and sectoral implementation measures in key areas like power. And it would be great to see some kind of thickening of the institutional structure so that it’s not subject to the whims and fancies of four-yearly politics,” he says.

Ulka Kelkar, World Resources Institute (WRI) India’s Climate Program Director, welcomes the US’s return to the international fold. “From the perspective of multi-lateral climate action, under the United Nations approach, the largest emitter in terms of cumulative historical emissions has to be in the agreement,” she says. Kelkar says that an actively-engaged US can help revive effective international carbon market-based mechanisms to reduce emissions. “Simply the presence of a large buyer in the carbon markets will give a boost to the efforts to use these market mechanisms for people to invest in innovations, in the hope of getting a better price for carbon credits,” she says.

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The Biden administration’s new climate ambitions could also have implications for India. Speaking to Mint earlier, Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of the Delhi-based research organization Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) had said that this could lead to India announcing its own mid-century climate plans. “There is an opportunity here for deeper India-US cooperation on: institutional investment in renewables, energy efficiency and sustainable mobility; disruptive technologies to reduce industrial emissions or capturing and removing carbon; new business models for urban and rural applications of distributed energy; and building resilient infrastructure against climate risk,” he said.

For Dubash, a meaningful Indo-US dialogue on climate could reset global parameters on emissions reductions. “There’s an interesting opportunity for India and the US to frame what ambitious action really looks like. The Europeans have framed it as, ‘You give us a net-zero pledge and we’ll count it as ambitious.’ I feel that for many countries, simply having a pledge for 30-40 years out doesn’t really contribute. Because then there has to be some mechanism through which a 30-year future pledge affects what you do today,” he says.

One of the Paris Agreement’s largely unfulfilled potential has been that of climate finance. The COP 16 (Conference of Parties) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) stated that, “developed country Parties commit, in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, to a goal of mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.” The COP 26 meet in Glasgow in November will be an important milestone in sorting out the issue of meeting this target. “It is very important that the US meets its previous commitment that it had made under the Obama administration and which it did not complete. And also increases the amount that it is going to give to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Other European countries have announced a doubling of their contributions to the GCF compared to the first round,” says Kelkar.

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According to Anjal Prakash, an IPCC author and adjunct associate professor and research director at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, the US should also look into technology transfers to developing nations to help the latter cut their emissions. “The world needs help in evaluating how green economy principles can be integrated into technology transfer policies and how it can serve as a means for further growth in the context of a green economy. With the new political will, these collaborations are possible,” he says.

Clearly then, the Biden administration has much to accomplish over the coming years. If it succeeds, this could be the beginning of a transformative moment. At least, it has begun well.

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