Biden, US key to addressing climate change, Covid-19

Biden and America are key to addressing climate change, Covid-19

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden removes his face mask to speak about the U.S. economy after attending a briefing in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 16, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

USA under President-elect Biden can galvanize global action to address global climate crisis and Covid pandemic, along with economic revival.

In the midst of all the chaos and confusion post-US election, when all the TV channels, newspapers and websites were screaming about the presidential poll results, the Trump administration announced the completion of the formal withdrawal process from the Paris climate agreement. The outgoing US President was against the Paris Accord since the beginning for many reasons, including his opposition to one of its architects -- former president Barack Obama. On June 1, 2017, Trump had formally announced that he would withdraw the US from the accord, fulfilling his campaign promise.

How important is the US to meeting the Paris Accord goals and addressing the climate crisis? America currently accounts for about 15% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) or carbon emissions (China is the largest emitter, accounting for nearly 30%). If one takes the cumulative carbon emissions, say in the last 100 years, the US dominates. To achieve the Paris temperature target of limiting global warming to well below 2 0C, all countries especially the high income and emerging developing countries, have to participate.

According to estimates made based on the national voluntary commitments submitted to the UN to reduce emissions, even if all countries achieve the targets, the world will warm by nearly 2.7-3 0C. Thus, the US, which accounts for about 15% of the global emissions, will become critical. Further, if the US withdrawal stands, many other countries may decide to leave the accord in the coming years, though as of now no country has threatened to do so. Even if countries do not leave, they may be less enthusiastic about achieving or enhancing their emission reduction commitments. This will make achieving the Paris temperature target impossible, forsaking the world to dangerous levels of global warming.

Fortunately, the global climate change efforts received significant boost when President-elect Biden announced that the US will re-join the Paris Accord on day one of his presidency in January. He also announced re-joining the WHO. Both Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, in their first address after being elected, mentioned climate change as a priority concern. Biden also talked about creating 10 million new jobs through green energy and climate change mitigation efforts. World leaders, in their message of congratulations to Biden, talked about cooperating with the US in achieving the global climate goals.

Climate financing or green financing, which is critical for assisting developing countries in implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation programmes, has received very limited funding from rich countries. Trump completely stopped even the limited fund flows from the US to the UN Green Climate Fund (GCF). Hopefully, the Biden administration will resume and enhance US contribution to the GCF to assist developing countries to meet their climate goals. GCF has received commitments of only about $10 billion during 2014 to 2020, as against the initial expectation of hundreds of billions of dollars. 

The Covid-19 pandemic may limit the capacity of rich countries in their ability to contribute to GCF. India is in the forefront of demanding that rich countries should meet their financial contribution commitment to assist developing countries. There is a need for enhanced financial commitment from rich countries to developing countries, but lack of fund flow may again halt any serious progress at the upcoming UN Climate Convention in Glasgow in late 2021.

Many countries have already committed through policies and legislations to reduce carbon emissions. The European Union has agreed to reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The UK, Japan and South Korea have announced similar goals for achieving carbon neutrality. Even China announced a policy to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Carbon neutrality is agreed under Paris agreement, where the net emissions from a country should be zero by around 2050.

Any US commitment to a national carbon neutrality target, and policies supported by legislation and financial incentives, has the potential to galvanise other rich countries to adopt policies and financial arrangements to achieve carbon neutrality. Biden has on his website announced many large initiatives to address climate change along with economic revival in the face of Covid-19. Some of the action plans promised are:

Ensure that the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050: On day one, Biden will sign a series of new executive orders with unprecedented reach that go well beyond the Obama-Biden administration platform and put US on the right track.

Build a stronger, more resilient nation: On day one, Biden will announce smart infrastructure investments to rebuild the nation and to ensure that the buildings, water, transportation, and energy infrastructure can withstand the impacts of climate change.

Make a historic investment in energy and climate research and innovation, as well as clean and resilient infrastructure and communities.

Rally the rest of the world: Climate change is a global challenge that requires decisive action from every country around the world. 

Biden has announced a plan to spend $2 trillion over the next four years to promote use of clean energy in the transportation, electricity and building sectors, designed to create economic opportunities and strengthen infrastructure, while tackling climate change. Thus, the need of the hour is to address climate change as part of the economic revival package in response to the economic crisis arising out of the pandemic. Biden could catalyse global action on climate change and the pandemic. Both climate change and Covid-19 are global challenges and require global action. Hopefully, the Biden administration can work with all nations and international institutions to address global environmental and health challenges.

(The writer is a retired Professor of Indian Institute of Science and a climate change expert)