The Net-Zero election: Will the US continue to swim against the tide on climate change?

It is election night in the US and millions of citizens have already cast their vote on who should be the next president. The divide between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is evident, with one ready to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and the other ready to embrace the net-zero transition. The result of this election will likely shape global climate negotiations moving forward.

The Net-Zero election: Will the US continue to swim against the tide on climate change?

If Biden does win

It is a US election like none other. Against a backdrop of a global pandemic, a tribalistic divide has emerged across the country that has led to controversial debates between Republican US President Donald Trump and Democratic opposition Joe Biden.

Already, more than 94 million people cast their vote, a record for the US election. The coronavirus pandemic has created an abnormally large number of postal voters, meaning many states may be unable to declare results tonight. Some are suggesting that the final results could take more than a week to emerge.

While election night is a welcome respite from the presidential debates that have, at times, devolved into a back-and-forth, school ground name-calling game, the final result may not even see the dust settle on the election. Murmurs persist that if Trump were to lose, he may not concede, a move that would sow more discord across the world’s largest economy.

Indeed, the economy has been one of the main battle points this election, alongside Covid-19. However, another key aspect of the debate has been that of the climate crisis.

Research suggests that extreme weather events cost the US economy more than $306bn in 2017, and that future climate-related events could drive more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030. It is a surprise, then that the economical damage caused by the climate crisis hasn’t softened Trump’s stance on the matter.

Au revoir Paris

Exactly one year ago, 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”.

If Trump does indeed win the election process, the US is officially out of the global accord as of Wednesday 4 November. The departure could see a rise in fossil fuel use across the country, with further rollbacks on existing environmental legislation. 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.

In contrast, The Democrat’s Joe 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.

Crucially, Biden would ensure that the US re-joined the Paris Agreement. 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.

If Biden does win, Carbon Brief states that more than 60% of global carbon emissions will be covered by a net-zero ambition. 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.

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 should 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.

Point of no return?

The election is, therefore, a tipping point for the US and climate action. Four more years of Trump could drastically slow the pace required to alleviate rising global temperatures. But does that mean that the 1.5C ambition of the Paris Agreement will be out of reach until a Democratic representative is elected?

Fortunately, the collective willpower of some of the most powerful US cities and businesses are attempting to step up in the absence of politicians.

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 Bloomberg’s 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.

Elsewhere, the American Cities Climate Challenge, set up in 2018 by Bloomberg, 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. 

On the eve of the election vote, Bloomberg said the following: “While the Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement, the American people never supported that decision – and cities and states and businesses across the country resolved to do their part to stay in. The public understands that fighting climate change goes hand in hand with protecting our health and growing our economy. So despite the White House’s best efforts to drag our country backward, it hasn’t stopped our climate progress over the past four years – and in fact, it has led to even more bottom-up action, to make up for the lack of leadership at the top. 

“Immediately after President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Governor Jerry Brown and I launched America’s Pledge. The idea was to measure and communicate to the world the climate actions of all the US cities, states, businesses, and local groups that remained committed to the Agreement – more than 4,000 in all. We’ve been able to keep our Paris targets within reach, and now we need to elect more leaders who can help us meet those targets – and go beyond them, because over the past four years the dangers of climate change have only gotten more serious and severe.”

So, depending on the result, the election won’t be the endgame for the net-zero transition. Instead, it is yet another, albeit big, hurdle for the global green community to overcome. If the US chooses to swim against the tide on the net-zero transition, rest assured that cities, businesses and youth activists will attempt to bridge the Trump-shaped void left in the Paris Agreement.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie