After four years of absence and boycott, in 2021 the United States will make a comeback to the global climate action scene.
The process is already set in motion.
Climate change represents –alongside the pandemic, the economic crisis, and racial injustice– one of the four pillars of the Biden-Harris transition team, which will lay the foundations of the administration.
Once sworn into office, Joe Biden is set to immediately re-enrol the US in the Paris climate agreement and to start promoting his plan for climate change and environmental justice.
The plan, aimed at putting the US on an irreversible path to net zero emissions by 2050 while creating millions of well-paying jobs, includes proposals for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035, $2 trillion in green investment over four years and a pledge to devote 40 percent of these investments to disadvantaged communities.
The degree to which Biden will be able to deliver the plan will significantly depend on runoff elections for Georgia’s senate seats on January 5, as they will determine which party has control of the US Senate.
Should Democrats win them, Biden would have a majority in the Senate, increasing his chances of a prompt implementation of his climate plan. Without that majority, he would have to resort to executive actions and the use of federal agencies to push parts of his climate agenda, while negotiating other parts in Congress with Republicans, something President Obama also resorted to during his term of office.
Alongside the implementation of domestic green initiatives, Biden will also have to deal with the international dimension of climate action. This comes at an historical juncture for climate commitment: the European Union, China, Japan and South Korea all recently announced goals for net zero emission by 2050 or shortly afterwards. The addition of the US would bring this to about two thirds of the global economy, and more than a half of the world’s emissions.
A sensible way for Biden to engage with the international dimension of climate action might be to engage with the EU in the establishment of a ‘global net zero coalition’.
This ‘coalition of the willing’ – open to all nations – should aim at overcoming some of the key obstacles the world will face on the road to climate neutrality.
In an ideal world, the coalition would focus on the joint development of the green technologies that are required to decarbonise our economies: from renewable energy to green hydrogen, from electric cars to batteries. But this is not realistic, as green technology leadership will likely remain a matter of national sovereignty in the US and in EU countries, without mentioning China.
Realistically a ‘global net zero coalition’ might be focused on items that, although key to the achievement of climate neutrality by the mid-century, would likely fail to materialise in absence of strong international cooperation.
Two examples are the introduction of carbon border adjustment measures and the development of carbon emission removal technologies.
Economists have long argued that the best policy tool to tackle climate change is to price carbon to encourage emitters to reduce their carbon pollution and turn green. One of the major political difficulties in doing so relates to the fear that such schemes could dampen economic competitiveness and lead to industries’ relocation to countries with weak climate policies. These risks can be tackled with the introduction of carbon border adjustment measures, which represent a tax on imported goods based on their carbon content.
The EU intends to introduce such measures in the context of its Green deal and Biden’s climate plan also commits to a similar course of action. The best way to introduce such measures is by following a multilateral approach to prevent protectionist risks and global trade tensions. The US and the EU might thus jointly develop such measures, so that the initiative is not perceived as unilateral. This could pave the way for a smooth introduction of carbon border adjustment measures and therefore allow the development of much stronger carbon pricing schemes in the two blocks and beyond.
Removing carbon from the atmosphere will be necessary to reach net zero by the middle of the century, and subsequently achieve net negative emissions. This can be done with both nature-based and technology solutions. Nature-based solutions include afforestation and reforestation. Technology based solutions include carbon capture and storage and geoengineering solutions like direct air capture. Notwithstanding their key importance for climate action, these solutions currently remain insufficiently developed due to a lack of incentive to individual action. This makes international cooperation essential in the field. The US and the EU might spark such a new global effort on afforestation and reforestation across the world, as well as on research and innovation in technology-based solutions.
2021 can be a breakthrough year for climate. Global momentum to achieve net zero emissions by middle of the century is building in a way no one could have predicted a year ago. Covid-19 has forced nations to inject billions into their economies, and some of them are committed to build back better, notably investing in the green transition.
In November 2021, the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow will see all countries present their new emissions reduction plans for 2030. On top of raising their individual climate ambitions, the US and the EU have a real opportunity, through a ‘global net zero coalition’, to remove some of the key bottlenecks in the global path to climate neutrality.
Conditions have never been so favourable for global climate action: Washington and Brussels have the responsibility to lead.