Climate Action in 2021

Dana Pjanic | Climate Change Fellow

Policymaking in 2020 was defined by the coronavirus; frantically attempting to maintain contact tracing, balancing the economic costs of stay-at-home orders against the minimisation of loss of life, and navigating the transnational nature of the pandemic. As we begin 2021, though certain nations have initiated the roll out of vaccinations, it seems that the world must now continue to learn to coexist with the virus, rather than eliminate it. Hopefully, however, this previous experience will allow decision-makers to return to other looming threats that threaten to destabilise the current global order, namely climate change.


President-elect Joe Biden (at the time) proposed the most ambitious climate action plan ever attempted by a U.S president, aiming to initiate a ‘Clean Energy Revolution’, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The most defined aspects of Biden’s plan pertain to infrastructure investments of $1.7 trillion which will build climate efficiency and resilience across building, transportation, energy and water sectors. Thus, Biden hopes to combine climate action with economic recovery from the pandemic, putting millions of Americans back to work and promoting research and energy innovation.


In this latter area of research funding, Biden’s climate plan clearly singles out China as a competitor in the, ‘clean energy race of the future’ and aims to re-establish the United States as a leader in investment and innovation. China itself has proposed its own action plan, aiming to reach peak emissions by 2030 and then carbon neutrality by 2060. In the aftermath of President Trump’s trade war and ‘tough-on-China’ foreign policy, the question must be begged as to how the bilateral relationship will fare in the area of climate diplomacy. Looking back on Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping’s 2014 joint emissions reduction pledges, it seems unlikely that such a high degree of bilateral cooperation will be reached under President Biden, unless extraordinary efforts are made to repair the fractured relationship.


Rather, themes of great power competition have increasingly seeped into discussions of the U.S-China relationship even in areas such as climate policy. One could predict that the quest to dominate climate technologies, new waterways and control resource access will lead to competitive discord and undermine global progress in climate action.


As the world’s two largest emitters, it is highly desirable that some level of unity is reached between China and the United States, with their climate action containing the potential to set the world a long way towards limiting warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels. However, after four years of climate denial and a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement from the White House (albeit now sought to be reversed), it is uncertain how China and the world will receive the return of the U.S to global climate negotiations.


Considering that several other nations such as Japan, South Korea and the member-states of the EU have also committed to climate neutrality by 2050, the U.S may not find it so simple to reclaim the global status they enjoyed in climate relations under President Obama. However, in looking to the future of climate action, it may no longer be as necessary to see the U.S as the driving force behind global progress.


Just recently in Denmark, the government has agreed to end the offering of licenses for oil and gas exploration and extraction in the North Sea by 2050. The estimated cost of this reform is placed at roughly 13 billion kroner (or $2.1 billion USD), and the country’s projected output is expected to fall by 15% over the next three decades due to lower investment. However, despite the high economic costs, Denmark remains committed to reducing emissions and hopes that the reform will encourage similarly progressive action throughout Europe and the rest of the world.


Compared to Joe Biden refraining to limit fracking on private land or Xi Jinping allowing emissions to increase until 2030, these reforms exemplify a real sacrifice in the struggle against global warming. Additionally, countries such as Morocco and The Gambia have made some of the most ambitious emissions reduction pledges globally, with both strategies adequate to limit warming to 1.5℃.


In an increasingly multipolar international system, it is encouraging to see how smaller nations may become climate leaders in their own right, proposing and pursuing more progressive reforms than the largest emitters themselves. In looking back at the events of 2020 and the efforts that are being made to usher in change for the future, it should be hoped that the climate conversations of 2021 and beyond are dominated less by global superpowers, but rather represent all the countries with a stake in averting climate disaster.


Dana Pjanic is the Climate Change Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.