A US administration that is committed to climate action could lead global efforts to build a cleaner recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) will take place in Glasgow in November 2021, five years after the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change. This is a critical juncture. The latest scientific analysis indicates temperature rise in excess of 3°C over pre-industrial levels if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations double, which the world is on course to reach around 2060 at current rates of emissions. According to the UN Environment Programme, to reach the global target of 1.5°C set under the Paris Agreement, countries will need to collectively increase fivefold their existing commitments to reduce emissions over the next decade.
All countries and blocs will need to demonstrate their commitment to, and ambition on, climate action in the run-up to the Glasgow talks. What the US does over the coming year, and in particular its relationship with China, may determine the trajectory the parties to the conference take – and, ultimately, whether the world succeeds in averting catastrophic climate change.
The joint announcement on climate change made by President Xi Jinping and Barack Obama in late 2014 drew a line under the ‘blame game’ that had followed the collapse of climate negotiations at Copenhagen (COP15) in 2009. The rapprochement helped pave the way for the signing of the Paris Agreement. Cooperation on climate became the most productive dimension of the China–US relationship, leading to substantive collaboration and on-the-ground pilot projects through initiatives such as the US–China Climate Change Working Group and the US–China Clean Energy Research Center. This cooperation has diminished significantly under the Trump administration.
Xi Jinping’s unilateral pledge, made at the UN General Assembly in September 2020, that China will work to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 highlights how far the US’s own standing has fallen on climate action. But the current lack of detail on China’s nearer-term implementation measures, and credible concerns that China may still backslide on coal, point to the continued need for international partnerships.
What, then, may be the consequences of the outcome of the November 2020 presidential election for environmental governance? If Donald Trump remains in office, concludes the process of withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, and pursues a second term based on creating an enduring legacy for US fossil fuel interests and environmental deregulation, what does this mean for global cooperation on climate change? If Joe Biden is elected president, to what extent will there be a change of direction under his administration? Will it be possible to roll-back the ‘Trump effect’?
The Trump effect
As president, Donald Trump has gutted environmental protection in the US. By July 2020 his administration had abolished 68 environmental regulations, including on phasing out inefficient lightbulbs and HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) ‘super pollutants’ in air conditioners and refrigerators; methane pollution from oil and gas infrastructure; and emissions standards for cars and trucks. The Trump administration has dismantled the Clean Power Plan, replacing President Obama’s signature climate policy with a far weaker rule, and has been vocal in his efforts to undermine the science of climate change.
During 2020, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the administration’s focus on support for fossil fuel jobs, as already provided for in the 2017 Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth, and the 2019 Executive Order on Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Energy Growth. The federal bailout of US industries affected by the pandemic notably offers no benefits for the clean energy sector, but includes concessions to oil, gas and coal companies to the tune of billions of dollars – including at least $3.9 billion from the Paycheck Protection Program. Marathon Petroleum is expected to claim a $1.1 billion tax refund due to the coronavirus stimulus law enacted in March.
Of greatest global consequence, in November 2019 the Trump administration formally notified the UN of its intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, effective one year later. This, as with the administration’s wider aversion to multilateralism – discussed in relation to various international institutions in other chapters of this paper – has weakened the global cooperation that is critically needed to mitigate climate change.
Re-election for Trump in November 2020 would likely entrench his administration’s commitment to US ‘energy dominance’ through expanded fossil fuel production, as well as bring further attacks on the science of climate change, including though reduced budgets for related scientific programmes.
Market and technological dynamics mean that the US economy may continue to decarbonize despite the antipathy of the Trump administration. However, the signalled US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, due to take effect the day after the election, could have serious repercussions for other signatories’ commitment to cooperation on mitigating climate change. Trump’s unilateral ‘laggardship’, in the assessment of one group of researchers, ‘reduces the prospects for reaching the 2°C target to near zero and will entail a substantial effect on long-run global emissions, even if the next president should re-enter the Agreement’.
Can a new administration restore global climate leadership?
If it so chooses, however, the next US administration could take a leading position on global efforts to address climate change. In particular, the US could take the opportunity to lead on efforts to build a cleaner recovery from COVID-19: one that helps to restore nature, climate and health.
The current global health and climate crises both underscore the deep interdependencies of our environment and the globalized economy, and the resulting need for international cooperation, leadership and foresight. It also shows very vividly how each and all of these can be set back by rivalry, suspicion and protectionism among critical global interests.
An effort by the next US administration to re-engage with climate change as a central element of foreign policy would be crucially important for global economic coordination on the post-coronavirus recovery, as well as sending a key signal as regards US engagement on climate policy and multilateralism – to allies, to markets and to international institutions – at a time of deep flux and uncertainty. Undoubtedly, too, it would give the US a valuable ‘soft power’ boost at a time when its reputation has been severely damaged by the current administration’s handling of the pandemic; by heavy-handed responses to protests for racial justice; and by its seeming disregard for the interests of traditional allies and long-standing alliances.
US re-engagement on climate policy has to begin at home, with the next administration first demonstrating a commitment to substantially increase its own mitigation ambitions: for example, by setting a net zero 2050 target for US domestic greenhouse gas emissions; reversing the dismantling of environmental rules since 2017; and putting in place effective laws and regulations to achieve this critical climate goal.
Government intervention is urgently required, beginning with stimulus funding to support the clean energy sector.
While the federal government has given little support to the clean energy sector under Trump’s presidency, wind, solar and storage projects are increasingly being planned and approved in the US, driven by markets and economics as well as by political and social pressure. One recent analysis notably projected that the US would add record levels of solar photovoltaic and energy storage capacity – 18 GW and 1.2 GW respectively – in 2020.
Nevertheless, COVID-19 has limited the availability of financing for green energy initiatives. This is hitting important areas like residential energy efficiency hard, and is undermining critical efforts not just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to create and sustain the jobs that the energy transformation could provide. Government intervention is urgently required, beginning with stimulus funding to support the clean energy sector.
A more ambitious vision along the lines of the ‘Green New Deal’ concept would entail a huge expansion of public investment that could be used to drive a recovery that benefits workers. Green job creation represents an enormous opportunity. A major report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in June 2020 set out a sustainable recovery plan that, in its assessment, could save or create some 9 million jobs annually around the world over the next three years. The ‘modular’ nature of renewable energy projects, and the number of households requiring energy efficiency upgrades, together with the short lead times of both these areas of activity, mean that a low-carbon stimulus has the potential to create jobs very rapidly, especially compared with traditional infrastructure projects with inherently long lead times.
Without major and sustained investment, the US risks missing out on opportunities to create low-carbon jobs and technology leadership in sectors like electric vehicles. The International Renewable Energy Agency assessed that China accounted for 39 per cent of all jobs in renewable energy globally in 2018, and Asia overall for 60 per cent of the global total. However, for the US to pursue job creation in renewables through a unilateral ‘green deal’ is not the solution: without global coordination, an aggressive low-carbon pathway brings the risk of carbon leakage, whereby polluting companies relocate to countries with less strict emissions controls.
A US administration that is committed to climate action could make such global coordination, now all the more urgent in the context of the post-coronavirus recovery, a priority. For this to be credible, the US must rejoin the Paris Agreement as a minimum, and as part of this set out an ambitious climate pledge in the form of its nationally determined contribution (NDC – the core commitment of each party to the agreement). But given the long-standing distrust of US good faith resulting from its previous failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (from which it withdrew under the presidency of George W. Bush in 2001), since compounded by President Trump’s disavowal of the Paris Agreement, rejoining Paris must not be an end in itself.
The US will need to demonstrate commitment to climate science, and to enhancing global climate action – around (but not limited to) resilience, mitigation and finance – through public diplomacy and actions that go beyond the Paris Agreement. These include the rebuilding of bilateral relationships with major emitters – chief among them China, India, Indonesia and the EU – and advocacy through multilateral processes and forums like the G7, the G20 and a reconstituted Major Economies Forum. But perhaps the most important task for a new US administration is to forge a rapprochement with China on climate.
Rebuilding US–China climate cooperation
‘[I]f we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,’ said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in July 2020: ‘We must not continue it and we must not return to it.’
Pompeo’s hawkish doctrine on US relations with China may not endure under the next administration, but the wider geopolitical tensions between the two, which have escalated over the past four years – as explored in other chapters of this paper – are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, as is the potential for escalation. A detente will not come easily, whichever administration is in the White House from 2021.
All the same, the success of any future climate regime will be crucially dependent on there being a cooperative relationship between China and the US; the two are the world’s largest carbon polluters, together responsible for more than 40 per cent of global annual emissions. A new US administration will need to work to restore climate change mitigation as a critical element of the relationship with China. As part of this, joint technical cooperation efforts established under the Obama administration – some of which continue to exist in diminished form, as do US–China subnational initiatives – could be reconstituted and reprioritized with relative ease.
Such a relationship on climate change is important for China’s climate policies, domestic and international, and for the global climate regime, as much as for the US’s standing in the world. President Xi’s new announcement of a 2060 carbon neutrality target may have rightly drawn headlines and praise, but nearer-term measures will be critical to mitigation efforts, particularly to avoid locking in high-carbon technological pathways. China is currently formulating its 14th Five-Year Plan, for the period 2021–25, which will include climate targets, at the same time as it is launching a stimulus programme in response to COVID-19 and preparing for next year’s COP26.
Early indications about the provisions of the Five-Year Plan are a cause for concern: although it may include a carbon emissions cap for the first time, there have also been proposals for a looser cap on coal-fired capacity – specifically, to allow it to rise by around 200 GW over the next decade, to 1,300 GW in total.
While many of the drivers of China’s policies on climate and the environment are domestic, tensions with the US pose an underestimated threat to the climate, not least as they encourage China to pursue energy self-sufficiency through coal. Planning for a possible ‘war-footing’ in the face of rising geopolitical tensions may mean that policymakers are more receptive to the case made by vested interests that continuing to develop domestic coal improves China’s energy security.
Similarly, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), if it acts as an ‘escape valve’ for Chinese overcapacity and shrinking domestic markets by exporting carbon-intensive production overseas, could undermine the vision of a cleaner, more modern and sustainable power sector in many countries, particularly those at an important inflection point in their development. International engagement – in part supported by the US – may be key to achieving a greener BRI.
A new US administration might not immediately ratchet down tensions with China. But in re-engaging in global efforts on climate change mitigation it could help to bolster low-carbon alternative pathways in partnership with China and BRI countries, as well with partners like the EU; Indo-Pacific allies like Australia, India and Japan; and international institutions in working to shape the rules around finance to least-developed countries.
The global order has changed dramatically in the five years since COP21 and the negotiation of the Paris Agreement. An impact of this that specifically undermines international efforts at climate change mitigation is that the concepts and institutions that guided previous bilateral engagement between the US and China may no longer be fit for purpose, partly because they have been undermined by the Trump administration.
The framing of a new US–China relationship, therefore, will need to take account of a new reality likely shaped by strategic rivalry and sharply contrasting values. Yet common interests in climate security can and should necessitate continued engagement, through technical exchange, the building of trust, and coordinated efforts on climate change mitigation.
An analogy for a possible way forward might be the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), undertaken by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and which saw a commitment to pursue arms control agreements even at points of deep tension between the nuclear superpowers.
Another approach, alongside other trust-building cooperative actions, could lie in the renewed fostering of more competitive economic dynamics between the US and China, such as through border adjustment taxes (BATs) – currently being discussed in the EU – whereby a carbon-adjusted price on imports from outside the US would be imposed to prevent carbon leakage.
The US and China can and should also work cooperatively on establishing joint clean energy standards and guidelines, and perhaps on international carbon trading. In addition, the US administration could support greater Chinese engagement with (and eventually membership of) the IEA, helping to build reassurance on energy security and joint engagement at multilateral level.
Economic recovery after COVID-19
Regardless, the opportunity exists after COVID-19 for the US president to make global coordination on the recovery – to ‘build back better’, as is frequently repeated – an important aspect of foreign policy, unlocking significant economic effects for the low-carbon technology transition, given the massive financial flows that will be channelled into recovering from the pandemic.
The US still has considerable diplomatic clout, and despite distrust around its engagement with environmental processes, it can send important signals to markets, investors and states that could help to accelerate a low-carbon transition pathway for the economic recovery.
This would play out in a critical year in the run-up to COP26 in November 2021. Not only will states produce their NDCs, but there will be a series of meetings and events that could help to coordinate international ambition, including the World Bank and IMF Spring Meetings; the Convention on Biological Diversity COP 15 (China); the G7 (UK); and the G20 (Italy).
Through all these forums, a US that has reaffirmed its commitment to climate science, reinvigorated its approach to climate action – and shown itself willing to play a constructive role in cooperation with the UK, the EU and other major emitters – could play a transformative role. In the alternative scenario, the US will sit outside the Paris Agreement, dealing a further blow to domestic and global climate ambitions, multilateral cooperation and key bilateral relationships. Recovery from such a blow may be near impossible.