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A President Biden could take big risks to reshape global climate politics

Alex McManis | Climate and Energy Fellow

For the last four years the world has watched as President Donald Trump has withdrawn the US from the Paris Agreement, wound back environmental regulations and undermined climate science. But Americans are becoming increasingly worried about climate change. Yale University research suggests that the percentage of Americans alarmed about climate change has grown by 15 per cent in the last five years. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has tapped into that sentiment. His campaign’s plan for climate action is more ambitious than any previous presidential nominee.

Action at home

Commitments to net-zero emissions by 2050 and decarbonising the energy sector by 2035 headline Biden’s domestic climate polices. They are not small tasks. He hopes to achieve these goals through a massive US$2 trillion investment in green energy, infrastructure, and research and development.

These commitments reflect increasing desire amongst Democrats for climate action. A recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll found climate change was the most important election issue to Democratic voters, while Pew also found climate change rated among Democrats’ top five issues. Party activists are likely to push Biden to enact his climate plan in full if elected, especially if Democrats control the House and Senate.

Biden’s plan has been designed to maximise political buy-in. The campaign has resisted a fracking ban, which would radically undermine their prospect in key swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where fracking employs thousands. Biden talks of treating coal miners “with the respect they deserve” and investing in coal mining communities to smooth their economic transition. He has distanced his plan from the ‘Green New Deal’, eschewing the latter’s jobs guarantee and universal public healthcare.

Much of the green spending would likely to be rolled into a Coronavirus recovery bill. Recovery spending is generally supported across the US, though evidence of support for green recovery spending is more ambiguous. How much legislative support a green recovery bill would get might depend on whether a Biden administration could successfully emphasise the bill’s support for American jobs. If they do that, it may prove more challenging for Republicans to block.

International policies

Equally important as his domestic actions is how a President Biden would behave on the international stage. Countries have often calibrated their ambition levels based on what the US is prepared to do. Rejoining the Paris Agreement and re-emphasising climate diplomacy would be just initial steps. Biden seems more prepared than past presidents to utilise the US’ economic clout to push other countries into taking stronger action on climate change.

Biden’s plan proposes introducing carbon border adjustments (CBAs), tariffs levied on imports from countries that are not meeting their climate obligations. These aim to achieve a level playing field between local companies, who are required to make substantial emissions reductions, and overseas companies, who have lesser climate responsibilities, making the latter pay a tariff to address the imbalance. CBAs have previously been highly controversial. The European Commission is currently facing significant opposition to new CBA proposals tied to the ‘European Green Deal’. They may also violate WTO rules.

If implemented, US CBAs could put huge pressure on governments to change their climate policies. The US is the world's largest economy, with $2.6 trillion worth of imports flowing into America annually. The number of companies that would be affected by the tariffs would be enormous. While some companies may avoid trading with the US or pass costs onto consumers, others will push their local governments to take increased action on climate. Having the world’s largest economy implement such polices may make them more acceptable internationally. Some commentators suggest US CBAs could be the start of a ‘climate club’ where the US and other ambitious countries agree to match their ambitious emissions reductions policies in exchange for preferential trade access, encouraging others to adopt similar policies to be part of the club. CBAs may prove a stronger incentive for climate action than anything mandated by international agreements.

The big risks

While Biden's policies would see the US reassert itself as a climate leader, they also risk alienating key international players. Implementing CBAs risks reigniting an age-old feud in climate politics. The countries least able to adapt to American CBAs will be developing countries. Their fossil-fuel powered energy grids were often bankrolled by Western governments and corporations, and their economies rely on cheap exports to the West. Many developing countries would view US tariffs as Western hypocrisy and an attempt to stymy their development. This could impact their willingness to contribute to international mitigation efforts.

Biden’s plans are undoubtably ambitious. His plan’s green investment and domestic emissions reductions programs are enormously valuable. Meanwhile Biden’s international policies have the potential to reshape the dynamics of international climate politics, with tariffs altering the policy calculuses of large exporters. However, there is one big caveat to all these predictions: Biden still has to win the election first.

Alex McManis is the Climate and Energy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs


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