Will America ever keep its climate promises?

Will America ever keep its climate promises?

Will America ever keep its climate promises?
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks about the Inflation Reduction Act on August 12, 2022 in Washington. (AFP)
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Just days after he was sworn in as US president, Joe Biden announced with much enthusiasm that “America is Back.” The statement, which meant different things to various people, was welcomed by the global community, notably the environment and climate change activists as well as US allies for its reference to NATO and climate change. The abrupt exit of the US from the Paris Climate Change Treaty, ordered by Donald Trump, was a near fatal blow to the agreement that has floundered since it was signed seven years ago.

Though Biden did reverse his predecessor’s decision to exit Paris immediately and brought the US back tothe negotiating table, the world has had to wait for over 18 months to see Biden take any meaningful step toward cutting carbon emissions in the US, which is by far the largest major polluter per capita emissions; its total emissions in 2019 stood at 5.2 gigatons, or 15.6 tons per capita per year. This compares poorly with even large economies such as India (1.87 tons) or China (7.38 tons). Historically, too, the US is responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions, accounting for 21 percent of all carbon ever emitted by human activity.

Thus, it was key that the US begin some meaningful action to cut its emissions. Biden’s signature legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, fits the bill nicely, even if just a start. With over $369 billion allocated to climate and energy provisions, the act seeks to change how the country’s energy is produced and is expected to put the US on the path to its stated goal of cutting its carbon emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Though that is clearly far from enough to save the world, most environmentalists would welcome the idea of the US taking climate change seriously, at least. The act also should spell an end to the decision of Biden administration to boost oil and gas output to combat sky-high energy prices.

But while the act is certainly expected to nudge the US toward tackling climate change in a serious manner, the country needs to do far more to come anywhere close to its commitments, both binding and moral, in cutting carbon emissions and leading the battle against climate change and global warming.

First, the US would need to not only ensure that it meets the commitment of 40 percent of emissions from 2005 levels, or not even the 50 percent as agreed in Paris, but as climate scientists have been pointing out the battle to restrict the rise in global temperatures to below 1.5°C from pre-industrial era is almost certainly lost and the world needs to do much more than meeting current commitments to even keep the rise below 2.5°C.

As of now, no major economy is anywhere on the path to even meet their commitments, let alone do anything more. Here, the US is definitely among the laggards rather than the leaders. But Biden’s legislationfails on another key measure that is of immense significance to the billions of people living in poor countries around the world facing the worst impact of climate change through desertification, rising sea levels, flash floods and prolonged droughts.

This kind of fudging needs to end, but that would need an unprecedented amount of sincerity from politicians, which is perhaps extinct in today’s world.

Ranvir S. Nayar

One of the key commitments of the US and other developed economies has been to provide adequate financial assistance to help these countries mitigate the impact of climate change and also cut their own emissions by getting access to the latest technologies, most of which are with the developed countries. The rich world has consistently failed to honour its commitments for financial aid that is supposed to have been at least $100 billion each year for well over a decade.

Last year, when Biden hosted a Climate Summit, he pledged a paltry $5.7 billion annually to help the developing countries deal with climate change. But that falls way short of not only America’s own commitments, and since the other developed economies use the US assistance as a benchmark and contribute a fraction of that, if at all, then the developed world will continue to break its promises, with deadly consequences for not just the poor countries but the entire globe.

And even in these minuscule payments, the West has resorted to “smart” financial fudging — or cheating, in simpler terms. Instead of giving this money as outright grants or at best soft government-to-government loans and only for climate-related projects, the West has started counting any kind of loan or investment by a Western company made out to the poor world as part of climate finance.

This kind of fudging needs to end, but that would need an unprecedented amount of sincerity from politicians, which is perhaps extinct in today’s world.

Even if Biden and all the other Democrats wanted to set an example for the rest of the rich countries and honestly meet their commitments on climate, domestic political compulsions would stop them from even trying. The US is headed for mid-term elections in a few months and Donald Trump is sniping at the Democrats’ heels. Though it is still early to call, most polls say that the Democrats will lose control of both houses of the US Congress, rendering the next two years of Biden’s term almost useless in terms of even moderate policy changes, let alone something as “revolutionary” as the US actually doing what it signed upto do.

Indeed, it should not come as a big surprise, if the Republicans, wholeheartedly opposed to the Inflation Reduction Act, actually try to force a roll back of at least some of its measures, notably for cutting oil and gas investments and hiking corporate taxes, rendering the entire act at best a paper tiger, and at worst a dead one.

Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.


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