US Election 2020: What does Joe Biden's win mean for the global climate emergency?

US President-elect Joe Biden is outlining that first steps of his transition plan after beating Donald Trump in the US election. While the latter is yet to concede the results, leadership under the Democrats will deliver a very different outlook on global efforts to combat the climate crisis.

With the US accounting for 14% of global emissions, the world’s largest economy will be a key driver in striving to reach required levels of global decarbonisation

With the US accounting for 14% of global emissions, the world’s largest economy will be a key driver in striving to reach required levels of global decarbonisation

President-elect Joe Biden edged out Donald Trump in the 2020 US election, a spectacle that latest most of the week. The result came down to a number of battleground states, with Biden securing key victories in Nevada and Pennsylvania to become the 46th US President.

Trump, unsurprisingly, is refusing to concede. Instead, the departing President and his campaign team are launching a number of legal cases over the supposed "illegal votes", though the party is yet to provide any evidence to support these claims. While things could change as the court cases are issued, it is looking like Trump will be the first one-term president since George Bush Senior in 1993.

Four years under Trump has seen the US renegade on key global climate commitments, while also whitewashing mentions of climate change and stripping back existing national environmental legislation

Analysis from the UN Environment Programme estimates that global emissions would need to fall by 7.6% every year this decade, in order to put the planet on the 1.5C trajectory – in comparison, Covid-19 is expected see the level of emissions for 2020 fall by 8%. With the US accounting for 14% of global emissions, the world’s largest economy will be a key driver in striving to reach these levels of decarbonisation. 

As such, edie has explored how a Biden win would provide a much-needed injection into global efforts to alleviate the climate crisis, with the Democrat representative promising massive changes on “day one”.

Paris Agreement

The US is officially out of the Paris Agreement. The Trump Administration officially left the global climate agreement on Wednesday (4 November), while votes were being counted for the presidential election.

One year ago, almost to the day, Trump officially triggered the process of withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement climate accord. The Trump administration claimed that remaining in the agreement would be an “unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses and taxpayers”. Trump stated that contributing to the Paris Agreement would be an economic detriment to the US population, which could cost 2.5 million workers their jobs by 2025.

It was arguably the most notable action from the President’s administration to distance the US from the ongoing battle to combat the climate crisis. In fact, research from Columbia University has found that the Trump Administration has overseen the rollback of more than 160 regulations related to environmental protection. These range from product standards for energy efficiency to car fuel and methane emissions.

President-elect Biden has already signalled his intention to rejoin the Paris Agreement. In Tweet sent on the 5 November, Biden stated that in “exactly 77 days” the Biden Administration would join the global climate accord. This doesn’t come as a surprise as Biden has previously vowed to rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office.

It is one of the key mechanisms that Biden will utilise to ignite a green revolution in the US, under the mantra of a Green New Deal. Biden claims that his climate action plan could enable the world’s largest economy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The $2trn (£1.6trn) plan would see the US run on zero-carbon electricity by 2035, further scaling back the influence of the coal industry. Even under Trump, reports suggest that there are now 5,000 fewer coal sector jobs compared to when he was elected. Transport and the built environment would also be overhauled to align with a net-zero commitment.

As part of the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) submitted by the former Obama Administration, the US had agreed to cut its climate footprint by at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. It is likely that are more ambitious NDC would be submitted to account for the heightened political focus on climate change under the Democrats.

Legislative headaches

It won’t be a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy.

Firstly, Trump is not departing the presidential seat quietly. Trump and his campaign are vowing to sue over vote-counting in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia. Theses cases join existing legal challenges in Nevada. As such, plenty of legal challenges could delay the official start to his presidential tenure.

As reported by Bloomberg, a Biden presidential win still doesn’t give the Democrats control of the Senate, which oversees the approval or obstruction of key policy agendas.

The Democrats were hoping to overcome the Republicans' 53-47 majority in the Senate, which in turn would give smooth passage for Biden’s policy agenda. However, those hopes have been largely dashed, with many Republicans keeping key seats in the Congress upper chamber. With senators appointed into six-year terms, the Democrats would have to wait two years just for one-third of the Senate to be up for re-election. 

The key to a Democratic senate now lies in Georgia, where two seats could still be flipped. One of those seats already looks to be heading to a "runoff" in early January. If the Democrats secure those two seats, the Senate would be split 50.50 with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker.

In the absence of the Senate, however, the Democrats can rely on regional and city-led leadership on climate action.

Net-zero movement

The American Cities Climate Challenge, set up in 2018, focuses on city-level approaches to combatting carbon emissions. A total of 25 cities, including Boston, Seattle and San Jose, have all been accepted into a two-year acceleration programme to help them meet – or beat – their near-term carbon reduction goals. If 100 cities were enrolled in the programme, Bloomberg Philanthropies claims that those cities’ contribution to the Paris Agreement would be met. 

Directly after the Withdrawal announcement, a whole host of US states and corporates displayed solidarity with the ‘We Are Still In' pledge. More than 900 companies, including Nike, Tesla, Google and Microsoft, joined Bloomberg's We Are Still In declaration and along with cities have spurred demand for renewables that has seen clean energy capacity double in the US since 2008.

Michael R. Bloomberg, C40 Board President, UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for climate action, and Mayor of New York City between 2001-2013 has been vocally against many of Trump’s decisions when it comes to relaxing laws for coal production, water quality and rolling back efficiency standards for vehicles.

He is also the founder of Beyond Carbon, a programme to drive the US towards a 100% clean energy economy – and close all coal-fired power stations within the next decade. He has already made a $500m cash injection into the campaign, as he aims for Beyond Carbon to ignite state and local policy changes that enable the transition to electric vehicles, building pollution, and low carbon manufacturing.

Beyond Carbon’s launch in June 2019 follows a collaboration with the Sierra Club in 2011 to launch Beyond Coal, which assisted in coal plant closure. Beyond Coal has now officially retired 326 of 530 — over 60% — of US coal-fired power plants. Beyond Carbon will accelerate work on this front, using strategies from the former campaign, as well as preventing the construction of gas plants as an alternative.

Directly after the Withdrawal announcement, a whole host of US states and corporates displayed solidarity with the ‘We Are Still In' pledge. More than 900 companies, including Nike, Tesla, Google and Microsoft, joined Bloomberg's We Are Still In declaration and along with cities have spurred demand for renewables that has seen clean energy capacity double in the US since 2008.

The Beyond Carbon programme aims to drive the US towards a 100% clean energy economy – and close all coal-fired power stations within the next decade. Beyond Carbon’s launch in June 2019 follows a collaboration with the Sierra Club in 2011 to launch Beyond Coal, which assisted in coal plant closure. Beyond Coal has now officially retired 326 of 530 — over 60% — of US coal-fired power plants. Beyond Carbon will accelerate work on this front, using strategies from the former campaign, as well as preventing the construction of gas plants as an alternative.

So, a Biden win doesn’t change much overnight. But if or when potential court cases are settled and Biden does become the 46th US president, the globe finally becomes aligned on the climate emergency.

Carbon Brief states that more than 60% of global carbon emissions will be covered by a net-zero ambition because of Biden's climate commitments. Last month, Japan and South Korea pledged to legislate for net-zero by 2050 and, previously, the UK, EU and New Zealand have set the same deadline. China, the world’s largest emitter, has committed to reaching peak net emissions by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Having the world’s two largest emitters – the US and China – realigned in agreement on the need to reach net-zero with mobilise more radical climate action.

Just as important is the fact that a US net-zero target would make climate action a central theme to all future negotiations. Net-zero will be embedded across future G7 and G20 discussions, and next year’s COP26 negotiations will get a much-needed boost, with both China and the US firmly at the table.

The US rejoining the Paris Agreement could also help unlock the required financial support to help developing countries finance national low-carbon transitions. G20 nations had been expected to mobilise more than £100bn in climate funds for developing nations, but have since quietly scaled back pledges.

Matt Mace



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