Red or blue, let’s hope the US votes green
Next month’s US presidential election will not just settle a slew of major domestic issues for at least four years, it will also have a profound impact on key international ones, perhaps the biggest being the future of global climate action.
One of the massive dividing lines between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is the future of the Paris climate treaty. Trump has already set in motion US withdrawal from the agreement, to take effect soon after election day, while Biden would reinstate US participation.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the election will have a monumental impact on global environmental efforts in the 2020s, either bolstering or retarding international efforts to tackle global warming. If Biden wins — and I hope he does — there will be a renewed jolt of optimism in the battle to tackle climate change.
Indeed, a Biden presidency may even provide a fillip for the growing number of people who argue Paris does not go far enough. As the UN itself has concluded, the commitments countries made in 2015, important as they are, are not yet enough to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the level many scientists say we must not breach if we are to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
However, should Trump prevail, the current pessimism about global warming will intensify given that the US is the world’s second largest greenhouse gas polluter after China. There even remains an outside possibility that the Paris treaty itself will wither away.
It is no exaggeration to say that the election will have a monumental impact on global environmental efforts in the 2020s.
That need not be the case, and the most likely response of several other powerful nations and blocs will be twofold. First, they will try to keep the edifice of Paris (or a successor agreement) alive for four more years until Trump’s successor is in place. And second, they will continue encouraging change at the grassroots level in US cities and states where much positive movement toward tackling climate change is happening.
For example, former California governor Jerry Brown and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg are leading an “America’s Pledge” climate action group with more than 3,000 US cities, states and businesses attempting to deliver a 26 percent reduction in greenhouses gases by 2025 under Paris. America’s Pledge assert that it is now within striking distance of fulfilling this agreement made by the Obama administration.
It is not just many liberal and centrist politicians — including moderate Republicans — who favor remaining in Paris, but much of the nation’s business community too. Many US multinationals argue that it is better for the US to keep a seat at the table and influence an accord that big US businesses may ultimately have to abide by after the Trump presidency anyway.
So the Paris agreement could withstand US withdrawal, especially if a pro-Paris Democrat replaced Trump in 2025. The reason is not just that the deal retains significant support across the world, including China and Europe. In addition, it intentionally has a flexible, bottom-up approach compared with the previous Kyoto Protocol, and this greater decentralisation provides resilience.
While the wisdom of this appears obvious, it is a breakthrough from the more rigid, top-down Kyoto framework. While Kyoto worked in 1997 for the 37 developed countries and the EU states that agreed it, a different way of working was needed for the much more complex Paris deal which involves more than 170 diverse developing and developed states.
By design, Paris allows countries to more away from “one size fits all to develop bespoke plans to reach emissions targets with not just national, but also sub-national, governments in cities and regions working in partnership with business.
That this approach makes sense is also reflected in the diversity of climate measures that countries, pre-Paris, had started to make in response to global warming. This was illustrated in a report at the time by the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics, which focused on about 100 countries plus the EU, together accounting for 93 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and revealed there were then more more than 800 climate-change laws and policies in place across the world, compared with 54 in 1997.
About half of these were legislative measures, and the rest executive actions such as decrees. About 45 countries have economy wide-targets to reduce their emissions. Moreover, 86 countries have specific targets for renewable energy, energy demand, transport or land use, land-use change and forestry, while about 80 percent of the countries have renewable targets; most are executive policies.
Collectively, what this illustrates is that, whether Trump or Biden wins, the best way to tackle climate change is an increasingly bottom-up approach with nations meeting their targets in innovative, effective ways. Deeply damaging as a re-elected Trump pulling the US out of Paris would be, it could still provide a resilient, flexible framework for climate action that becomes a foundation stone of future sustainable development across the world.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics