US election results will not derail global climate agenda
As the COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh moved into overdrive this week, the eyes of many at the event were focused some 6,000 miles away in Washington on Tuesday’s midterm election results, where Democrats have fared better than some exit polls forecast.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, now the US climate envoy, vowed in Egypt on Tuesday that President Joe Biden’s administration would press ahead on climate action regardless of any Republican advances in Congress. This is true in the sense that there is still much that Biden will be able to do via executive action, but there is little prospect of major legislation such as that passed this year in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, which may be the most important climate bill in US history.
Beyond the fact that there has not been the huge “red wave” that some polls forecast, many at COP27 remain concerned that a Republican climate skeptic, possibly even Donald Trump, could get elected as president in 2024. However, even if that proves true, it will not necessarily be the mortal blow to climate action that some fear.
This is because the Paris Agreement is a flexible, resilient accord that could withstand another period of a climate-skeptic Republican like Trump being in power in the White House, including another potential US withdrawal from the agreement. The reason for this is not just that the Paris deal retains significant support across the world, including in China (the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter) and the EU. In addition, the landmark agreement intentionally has a “bottom-up” approach — unlike the previous Kyoto Protocol agreed in 1997.
By design, the agreement uses a flexible approach, whereby countries develop bespoke plans to realize emissions targets with national and subnational governments working in partnership with business. In other words, while Paris created a global architecture for tackling global warming, it recognizes that diverse, often decentralized, policies are required by different types of economies to meet climate commitments.
And this greater decentralization and suppleness mean that a US withdrawal would not necessarily be fatal, even though it would inevitably be suboptimal.
While the wisdom of this flexible architecture may appear obvious, it represents a change from the more rigid “top-down” Kyoto framework. While Kyoto worked in 1997 for the 37 developed countries and the EU states that agreed to it, a different way of working was needed for the much more complex Paris deal. It comprises more than 170 diverse developing and developed states, which have agreed to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
The Paris Agreement’s greater decentralization and suppleness mean that even a US withdrawal would not necessarily be fatal
This core point was highlighted at COP27 by Kerry and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who have joined forces to help US cities, plus their peers across the world, reach net zero and become more resilient to climate change. Their first-of-its-kind initiative, dubbed the Subnational Climate Action Leadership Exchange, will see investment from the US State Department and Bloomberg to help cities cut their emissions.
Kerry said on Tuesday that “cities, states and regions are going to play a critical role on climate in this decisive decade, and this initiative will help speed and scale those efforts.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg referenced the climate denial of the former Trump administration, saying that “the last government didn’t even acknowledge (the climate crisis) existed ... while America was asleep at (the) wheel, we launched the C40 initiative.” This was a reference to the global network of mayors who took up the baton on climate action during the Trump administration, making significant cuts to US emissions.
It is not just liberal and centrist US politicians — including moderate Republicans — who favor remaining in the Paris deal, but also much of the nation’s business community too. Many US multinationals, including in the energy sector, argue that it is better for the US to keep a seat at the table and influence an accord that big America-headquartered businesses may ultimately have to abide by anyway in international markets.
That the bottom-up 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 major report by the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics, which focused on 98 countries plus the EU, together accounting for well over 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It revealed there are now more than 800 climate change laws and policies in place across the world, up from 54 in 1997.
Collectively, what this underlines is that the best way to tackle climate change going forward is a decentralized approach, with nations including the US meeting their target commitments in innovative and effective ways that build on this momentum. Despite the Republican advance in Congress, and even if the party also retakes the White House in 2024, Paris can therefore still provide a resilient, flexible framework for climate action that will become a key foundation of sustainable development for billions across the world.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.