Climate Change

Biden’s transformational challenge

Though the US is no longer addicted to coal, it is completely sold on the idea of cheap energy, writes Sunita Narain

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 09 November 2020

It’s time to exhale. Donald Trump is now a former US president. President-elect Joe Biden and his vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, have stated they will rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change.

So denial of this existential threat to the Planet is now past. And we can move decisively on actions. Or, so we hope.

This is where we need a dose of realism. I am not undermining the Biden-Harris triumph, but reminding us of the troubled paths ahead. The world is hurtling down to a climate change-led catastrophe. We cannot afford coy and small answers.

This is where introspection of the Biden-Harris victory must start. The fact is they won, but Trumpism did not lose. What is shocking to most of us, watching from the outside, is that close to half of America voted for him.

He got more votes in 2020 than in 2016, notwithstanding his failure in managing the uncontrolled pandemic, his rejection of climate change and his exacerbation of race and gender conflicts. We need to remember this.

The United States is a divided nation and the deep rift has its foundations on what nearly half of the American people want. You can say Biden-Harris won because they said they would control the virus; they would listen to scientific advice on the need to wear masks; and, impose lockdowns when necessary.

But it is also a fact that people voted for Trump because they did not want any of these. They believe the economy is more important than the virus. You can argue that the virus does not discriminate, but it hits poor people more. But they are not listening.

Let’s also be clear that, more than ever before, this US election had climate change denial or action on the ballot. It was an issue that was on the table — Trump made sure of that. He was belligerent about his opposition to this “fake” science.

He swore by coal and, more importantly, he pushed his country to manufacture more: made in the USA was his slogan. Pushing against climate change — in spite of the terrible fires and hurricane damages — was his way of putting the economy above everything else. His people saw this.

We need to take off our rose-tinted glasses that shows ‘all is well’. The US has always been a renegade nation as far as climate action is concerned — the abysmally insignificant targets it has set for itself under the Paris Agreement are a testimony to this.

It is of course another matter that Biden-Harris will, at least, do something and not work against action. But this is only because Trumpism took us down to depths that we never imagined before.

It is also a fact that Trump is right (and completely wrong) on one thing. He says his country’s energy emissions were lowest during his term; this is right. The US energy sector’s emissions declined by a massive 30 per cent in the past decade.

The shift was primarily because market factors moved the power sector away from coal to shale and natural gas. In the last year alone, coal-fired power generation fell by 18 per cent, according to data from private research firm, Rhodium Group. This is where the good news ends.

The fact is that cheap shale gas took off where coal left — and it left behind the renewable energy surge as the cost of gas has fallen to a record low.

It is no wonder then that Biden has strayed off the New Green Deal agenda of his deputy to argue that he will not stop fracking of gas on private lands, where the bulk of the gas is found.

The bigger problem is that other sectors of the US economy are now reversing gains made from the transition from polluting coal. The transportation sector has overtaken energy emissions and industrial sector emissions have grown.

The bottom line is that even though US emissions fell by some 2 per cent in 2019 and there was a cumulative decline of 12.3 per cent on its 2005 baseline, the country is still way off the mark to meet its targets.

By the Copenhagen Accord target it signed, the US agreed to be 17 per cent below 2005 levels by the end of 2020; and as per the Paris Agreement, 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. In fact, net US greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 were higher than at the end of 2016 — the beginning of the Trump presidency.

What should concern us is that further decline will be hard. This is not only because of the increase in Trump’s vote share; it is because there are no easy answers for rapid and transformational emission cuts in the country.

Though the US is no longer addicted to coal; it is completely sold on the idea of cheap energy. It also wants to reclaim its role as the economic powerhouse — take back its position from China.

This will mean burning more fuel for industrial growth and using more energy that will negate all the gains of cleaner fuels. This, when we need transformational answers. So, let’s not kid ourselves that all will be well now that Biden-Harris are in power. We need to push more and force them to run, and not walk, the talk.

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