Now that Joe Biden has won the US presidential election, the key global issue is his administration’s approach to the fight against climate change. The outgoing president, Donald Trump, is a notorious climate change denier, and in his four years in office, the participation of the US in the UN-led global attempt at climate change mitigation has been steadily curtailed. Indeed, on 4 November, the US formally left the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Biden had tweeted at the time that the US will rejoin the very day a new president takes oath in January next year.
Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it. https://t.co/L8UJimS6v2— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 5, 2020
The recently-concluded US presidential election was a landmark in that Biden placed climate policy at the centre of his campaign. Apart from rejoining the Paris agreement, he has promised to begin the transition the American energy economy away from oil to renewables and an emissions-free power sector by 2035. His climate plan, on which his campaign promised to spend $2 trillion (around ₹150 trillion), includes bringing back and strengthening the environmental safeguards jettisoned by Trump, upgrading millions of buildings to highest possible energy efficiency levels, production of clean vehicles, and the setting up of an office of environmental and climate justice.
However, a Biden administration’s climate plans will have to contend with a Republican-controlled Senate and a conservative US Supreme Court. Republican senators are broadly against any kind of climate change legislation or energy reform. Meanwhile, conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett’s categorisation of the climate crisis as a “very contentious matter of public debate” during a hearing on her Supreme Court nomination has stoked fears that the court may block a Democrat administration’s plans on bold climate action.
Her is why the US matters in the global fight against climate change. Along with China, it is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. China recently announced that it plans to go carbon neutral by 2060. According to Berlin-based climate-science institute Climate Analytics’s Climate Action Tracker (CAT), if both China and the US can do this, that would be enough to limit global heating to 2.3-2.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Simply put, the 1.5-2 degree aim becomes more realistic with a US that honours the Paris agreement.
Needless to say, governments and climate policy experts are closely watching what the US under Biden actually ends up doing. In a statement on 8 November, Ajay Mathur, director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), congratulated the US president-elect. “India should urge the Biden administration to adopt climate change goals that place it on a path to a less than 2°C warming target,” he said, adding that the US needs to demonstrate its climate leadership through its actions.
Speaking to Mint, Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), the Delhi-based research and policy organization, says the Biden administration can speed up clean-energy roll-out in the US, re-establish faith in climate science and rebuild faith in multilateral cooperation. “It will also put pressure on India to announce its mid-century 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 says on email.
The US rejoining the Paris Agreement and cutting emissions can’t come soon enough. As environment policy expert Leah Stokes wrote in The Boston Globe, “The best time to cut emissions was decades ago; the second-best time is today. With a Biden administration, we can get started tomorrow.”