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How the US election could still turn the tide for global climate action

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President Donald Trump announcing his decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images News via Getty Images

In late 2019, when President Donald Trump formally requested to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, a technical quirk of the process meant the date of withdrawal would be doubly significant: Nov. 4, 2020, the day after a presidential election that, among many other things, has shown the two candidates deeply divided on climate change.

Less than a year later, China made a surprise announcement in late September to significantly scale up its ambition and target net-zero emissions by 2060 — a stark contrast to the Trump administration and, to many, the latest sign that countries are moving ahead on climate action even without American leadership on the issue.

But now, weeks before voters head to the polls, current and former negotiators in international climate talks say a Biden administration that rejoins the Paris climate accord and makes fighting climate change a priority both at home and abroad — as the Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president has promised — could still turn the tide in the monumental effort to prevent the worst effects of global warming.

"It would be huge, because these processes require leadership and the deployment of coordinated power," said James Cameron, a lawyer who helped negotiate the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, and advises the U.K. on its presidency of the upcoming COP26 climate summit in 2021. The formal name of the summit is the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC.

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Rather than writing off the U.S. as a partner after four years of a president who has called climate change a hoax, Cameron and others believe that getting Washington involved again could speed up movement on a host of issues that remain to be worked out in the complex framework of the talks, such as international climate finance and rules for carbon trading.

And aside from driving down the nation's own emissions, renewed U.S. engagement on the issue could also help rally other countries that are still dragging their feet when it comes to carbon reductions and mobilize market forces that would help speed up the transition to a cleaner economy around the world.

"It's not that we can't act without the U.S. But we just can act much more effectively with the U.S.," Cameron said.

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The result of the U.S. election is primarily set to have wide-ranging impacts on domestic policy, with a Democratic win promising stronger action on climate change and clean energy, based on both Joe Biden's coronavirus recovery plan and the more progressive climate platform recently adopted by the Democratic Party.

China is currently the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, but the U.S. remains by far the largest cumulative contributor to global warming of any one country to date.

Some experts believe that even a changing of the guard in both the U.S. Senate and the White House is not guaranteed to drive sweeping climate legislation at home, since the administration could be tempted to focus more on broader economic recovery. But there is hope that the U.S. would at least become a guiding force on the international stage once more.

"It was really under the Obama administration, going all the way back to 2008, that the U.S. really became engaged and started a lot of bilateral work, with China and India in particular ... Without them, I don't think we would have the Paris Agreement," said Carlos Fuller, the lead negotiator on climate change for the Alliance of Small Island States, a coalition of 44 developing countries that have pooled their resources to gain a louder voice in climate talks.

Under Biden, "I certainly believe we would see a shift, where they would again become a major player," Fuller said.

Work to be done

With the White House in retreat, the EU has stepped up to take a leading role on international climate action over the past four years. The bloc is close to agreeing on a binding goal to reduce its own emissions to net zero by 2050, including a higher interim target for 2030.

Its political leaders also took credit for nudging China toward its net-zero target, which was widely seen as a pointed rebuke of U.S. policy and a well-calculated move by Beijing to position itself as a more reliable partner on environmental issues. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said in a speech that the EU had "firmly conveyed" its message on the issue at a summit with China President Xi Jinping days before the announcement and called the 2060 target "a real diplomatic success."

The U.K., which has also committed to net-zero emissions, is now trying to get more countries to set higher targets as the organizer of next year's climate summit in Glasgow.

Alok Sharma, the country's secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, told a House of Lords committee in September that diplomats are engaged in pre-negotiations on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which covers rules for global carbon trading and other forms of cooperation and has remained unresolved since the rest of the Paris accord was adopted in late 2018.

"If the U.S. had been there, exerting its considerable political and economic pressure ... I think we would have seen more results [at 2019's COP25 summit] in Madrid," Fuller said. "That could have done it."

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Money for countries with lower GDPs also remains a sticking point, partly as a result of Trump's refusal to keep contributing to the Green Climate Fund, a vehicle set up by the UNFCCC to fulfill a pledge by countries with higher GDPs to raise $100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020. Other contributors have so far failed to make up the hole left by the U.S.

"We need the financing necessary to address mitigation and adaptation. That certainly has put a souring note on many of the negotiations," Fuller said. "There's still a lot of significant work to be done."

In the meantime, though providing more time for consensus-building, the delay of the summit because of the coronavirus has also increased pressure to show results on all fronts, according to Sharma.

"The issues are the same [and] I would argue that, because we have somewhat longer, there are raised expectations. People want us to come forward with more progress," he said.

'Bailing out a liner with a single bucket'

Although negotiators say the U.S. could help untangle those technical discussions, its most crucial contribution might come from simply returning to the table.

U.S. states and cities, alongside a broad range of businesses, have picked up the baton through climate action groups such as We Are Still In or the U.S. Climate Alliance. Together with changing energy economics, that has meant the country has continued to decrease its emissions even in the face of environmental rollbacks at a federal level. But subnational action can hardly replace the influence a White House delegation wields at climate talks, especially when it comes to pressuring other actors.

"The kind of leadership that the U.S. can bring in its better moments is essential," said Paul Bodnar, who was senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama and helped draw up a historic climate agreement between the U.S. and China that paved the way for the Paris accord.

Some observers believe other countries have simply been waiting out the election to see which way the tide will turn. All signatories to the Paris Agreement are supposed to update their pledges for emissions cuts before the end of the year, although many are expected to miss the deadline. But a Biden administration with a more ambitious U.S. target could help extract similar commitments from other major emitters like India, Japan, Australia and Brazil before COP26 in 2021.

"The U.S. has provided an excuse for many parties to sit on the sidelines and keep their ambition low," said John Morton, who succeeded Bodnar at the White House during Obama's second term and is now a partner at Pollination, a specialist climate change advisory and investment firm, and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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A coal-fired power plant in China. While the West is largely moving away from coal, many countries in Asia are still building new capacities.
Source: Tim Graham/Getty Images News via Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while addressing a U.N. roundtable in September, said the U.K. cannot convince the rest of the world to act on its own. Johnson will co-host an event in mid-December to mark the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement, giving world leaders an opportunity to announce new net-zero targets.

"The U.K. will lead by example, keeping the environment on the global agenda and serving as a launch pad for a global green industrial revolution. But no one country can turn the tide — it would be akin to bailing out a liner with a single bucket," Johnson said.

And although the EU's engagement with China and others on climate action is widely acknowledged, there are perceived limits to Brussels' diplomacy.

"The EU is a complicated machine. It is inherently more difficult to be nimble on the international stage if you're dealing with so many member states to coordinate," said Bodnar, who is now a managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute. China, on the other hand, is still finding its way toward the kind of "muscular positive leadership" that the issue requires, he added.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, declined to make an official available for an interview. A spokesperson said the commission continues "to work intensively through all available channels with our partners around the world to share our plans and to encourage them to raise ambition, too."

Market mover

A pivot to more aggressive climate action at a federal level could also have far-reaching effects outside the framework of the COP. Former participants say a recommitment to the Paris Agreement could also make the country's economy a greater engine of decarbonization domestically, by spurring on technological innovation, green finance and emerging business models, as well as influencing corporate decision-making and even consumer preference. Development finance and trade deals could then help carry that shift abroad.

"These are market catalysts that transcend borders. And it's these things ... that have a track record of driving rapid, broad and deep change in the global economy," Bodnar said.

Lord Greg Barker, who was a minister of state for energy and climate change under former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, has also said the biggest positive role the U.S. can play is getting the private sector to continue to invest and innovate.

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Biden has pledged aggressive action on climate change, while Trump once called global warming a Chinese hoax.
Source: Joe Biden for President Campaign (flickr.com)

"We're clearly better with American leadership on this agenda," Barker, now executive chairman of Anglo-Russian energy and metals giant En+ Group IPJSC, said on a webinar as part of NYC Climate Week in September. "In order to really [succeed], We need the U.S. right there, shoulder to shoulder, with the rest of the world."

Viewed from another angle, the U.S. staying on the side lines could also start to bring more noticeable consequences at home as the rest of the world continues to move forward, driven by the economic benefits of climate action. Nikkei Asia reported Oct. 21 that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will announce a net-zero target for 2050 in his first policy speech to lawmakers at the end of October. That would add another big emitter to the list of countries moving forward without the U.S. on board.

Some have also highlighted the risk of falling further behind China in areas such as clean energy manufacturing, and Morton pointed to a proposal by the European Commission to study a carbon border adjustment mechanism, which would tax emissions-intensive imports into the EU and has already been endorsed by the International Monetary Fund.

"It's a signal to the U.S. and others that are watching that you can't really sit this game out any longer," he said. "There'll be pressure on the pocketbook."

'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'

Even if Biden should win the election, there are other difficulties on the horizon.

Bodnar said the Paris framework has survived one of the most difficult challenges imaginable in the exit of one of its key architects, but also noted that a U.S. negotiating team will face a large trust deficit if and when it returns to the table — just as Obama's did before the COP15 summit in Copenhagen in 2009. George W. Bush had withdrawn the U.S. from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor of the Paris Agreement.

"In the early years, we were still digging ourselves out of the hole that the previous administration had dug for us. It was not an instant pivot to a happy collaborative atmosphere," Bodnar said. "The U.S. is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When we are the good Dr. Jekyll, then we are working with the international community to build structures that will survive us when we turn into Mr. Hyde."

With climate change becoming more urgent, Bodnar said there is now less time to rebuild that trust and he is hopeful other countries would set aside the "emotional baggage" to focus on the task at hand. "What other option do we have?" he said.

In the meantime, for a lot of countries that are still part of the conversation, the question of who wins the Nov. 3 election has taken on existential proportions in the face of more frequent and devastating floods, storms and droughts around the world.

"For us, cutting emissions by 50% by 2030 is absolutely essential if we want to meet that [1.5 degrees C] target" and avoid the worst effects of global warming, said Fuller, of the Alliance of Small Island States. Another four years of Trump, he added, would make getting there much harder.

"It would mean other countries would have to redouble their efforts," he said.