Biden’s domestic climate plan is good, but his global strategies are crucial

Greg Nash

As many climate activists had hoped, Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden came forward this week with an ambitious domestic climate change plan that proposes to cut U.S. emissions deeply while growing America’s clean energy sector. 

Yet, as important as the domestic elements of Biden’s plan and those of his rivals are, they are ultimately most valuable ecologically in legitimizing the key international aspects of climate protection, which are crucial to solving the inherently global nature of the climate problem in the first place. 

After all, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are only about 15 percent of the world total, compared to 30 percent from China alone. Fortunately, the E.U., U.S., China and fewer than 10 of other nations account for well over 80 percent of global emissions, meaning targeted international efforts have strong potential to reach the lion’s share of the problem.

Credible U.S. domestic climate action is a precondition to gaining the trust and respect of the rest of the world — and allowing America to exert unique pressure on other major nations to cut their emissions. 

President Obama’s experience proved this. It was only after Obama had instituted a wide range of domestic climate policies in his first five years in office that he had sufficient standing to drive more ambitious international action — and bring China to the table. This led directly to the Paris Agreement and the Kigali Agreement to eliminate the super greenhouse gases known as HFCs.

This is where Biden long international experience in the Senate and White House may prove crucial.

Biden’s plan proposes a series of measures intended to force the largest global emitters to cut their emissions more quickly. Critically, Biden signals his determination to use trade, security, tax and other powerful international levers to force top emitters, especially China, to cut their emissions.

 “We can no longer separate trade policy from our climate objectives,” the plan notes, and “cannot allow other nations, including China, to game the system by becoming destination economies for polluters, undermining our climate efforts and exploiting American workers and businesses.”  

This more muscular approach to climate policy recognizes the political and policy role of trade policy. It can be portrayed as being tougher on China than President Trump in the service of both U.S. job creation and economic fairness and progressive climate goals. 

Such strategies are not only imperative to cut global emissions, they could also play well politically, at home.  They have potential to appeal to working- and middle-class Americans in swing states concerned that China is getting a free ride on trade and industrial policy. And they should be welcomed by climate activists who are newly important in the Democratic primary process.

Biden proposes border taxes on imported goods from nations not cutting emissions sufficiently to “ensure that American workers and their employers are not at a competitive disadvantage and simultaneously encourage other nations to raise their climate ambitions.

Importantly, Biden’s plan demands other countries comply with “enhanced” Paris Agreement targets — that is, more ambitious emissions cuts yet to be negotiated, not just existing ones, and “condition(s) future trade agreements on partners’ commitments to meet their enhanced Paris climate targets.”

In these ways, the plan attempts to come to grips with the central fact that many of the largest emitting nations are not on track to meet their current Paris climate pledges, and that those pledges are themselves insufficient to prevent extreme warming in any event.

Global CO2 emissions grew by 1.6 percent in 2017 and increased by 2.7 percent last year, after staying flat for several years before. Chinese CO2 emissions rose by about 5 percent in 2018, while its current Paris target calls only for peak emissions before 2030, a less than business as usual goal that will doom any climate progress. And after steadily falling every year under Obama, U.S. emissions also grew in 2018 under Trump. 

Even if all the Paris emissions pledges were achieved, they would still push global average temperatures up at least 3.5 degrees Celsius, far above even remotely safe levels. Even more concerning, temperatures increases of more than 2 degrees themselves are increasingly likely to set off self-reinforcing, uncontrollable, runaway climate impacts. In this scenario ,the warming climate system beget still more warming, leading to a “hothouse planet.” Thus, we currently are on course for temperature increases of at least 4 degrees, according to a leading peer-review study published in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences journal.

More ambitious emissions reductions than the initial Paris pledges must be agreed to and then actually achieved sooner than previously thought, as the last year’s International Panel on Climate Change report found.  As Biden proposes, some subset of major global leaders will have to convene direct meetings to achieve these far more ambitious outcomes. 

Only this orchestrated, two-pronged sequence approach — of necessary U.S. domestic action establishing credibility and then enabling much greater international action — can bring down global emissions quickly as the IPCC and other major scientific studies have urged. 

This in turn is the only way to protect the U.S. from massively expensive and disruptive domestic climate change impacts, which are already costing hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of lives each year. Indeed, climate change is becoming a domestic matter of high economic costs of climate impacts, undermined public safety from storms, floods, fires, and sea-rise, and precarious national security from immigration at home and around the world. 

Yes, Biden, or whoever the Democratic nominee ends up being, needs to make the domestic economic case regarding the employment benefits of the new energy economy, as advocates on the left have demanded. 

But he or she must also bring forward a credible international plan for success. This is the combination needed to counter Trump’s dangerous, head-in-the-sand climate denial. Only then will climate action become a domestic political winner, and also yield the effective global policy outcomes needed to protect our economy and people.

Paul Bledsoe is a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute.  He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.

Tags Climate change climate plan Donald Trump Environment Joe Biden Paul Bledsoe

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