Is the cavalry coming over the hill? While scientists and pharmaceutical companies deliver on the promise of a Covid-19 vaccine, another battalion could be reinforced to save the climate. The election of Joe Biden as US President and China’s commitment to zero net CO2 emissions by 2060 give hope that next year’s UN climate summit could break tradition and actually help reduce emissions. With Japan and South Korea joining the EU and pledging to zero by 2050, two-thirds of the world economy is now at stake.
So far, climate diplomacy has fought against a zero-sum mindset. Many countries have liked to sound green on peaks while delaying action and freeriding others’ efforts. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that protecting the climate is an investment, not a cost – an important insurance policy against forest fires, floods and other natural disasters.
If global temperatures rise more than 1.5 ° C, we all lose – just as we all lose if the world doesn’t contain Covid-19. The Chinese Communist Party appreciates this as does Brussels, although it is not yet clear how China will wean itself off coal given how much more it wants to burn.
The pandemic was a reminder of how deadly countries are linked, but it also showed that early unilateral action pays off. New Zealand hasn’t waited to close its borders on the virus. For real progress on climate to be made, high long-term commitments need to be turned into detailed plans for this decade.
Here it is encouraging that Mr Biden plans to decarbonise US electricity by 2035; although his $ 2 billion plan to make it happen is likely to fall in a Republican-controlled Senate. He can still wield some power through executive orders Barack Obama used to limit vehicle emissions. And of course, individual states can go further: California has set a goal that half of its electricity must come from carbon-free sources within five years.
Under the partisan rhetoric in the USA and Australia, climate protection measures are becoming less and less divisive as the markets unleash unstoppable forces. Despite all the efforts of US President Donald Trump, coal mining is shrinking even in Republican countries. Texas long ago became the wild west of wind power. Kansas, Iowa, and North Dakota are now generating enough renewable energy to meet more than half of their electricity needs. The requirements for corporate disclosure of climate risk make fossil fuels increasingly unattractive to some investors.
Still, politicians have to be brave. In this decade, tough measures must be taken that disrupt daily life. Restructuring economies away from fossil fuels means ripping out boilers, insulating houses, phasing out the internal combustion engine, and changing the way we farm to improve carbon sequestration. Not everything will be popular – and leaders in large numbers will strive for security and justify their climate action by what others are doing, just like with Covid-19 lockdowns.
President-elect Biden has promised that the US will rejoin the Paris climate agreement. His arrival at the White House will also save Boris Johnson from triangulating between Trump’s resistance and a world in need of environmental leadership. The UK Prime Minister may have thought Mr Trump would be a stronger ally in trade. The fact that the UK is hosting the climate summit next year provides a platform for Mr Johnson to re-establish friendly relations.
To impress, Britain needs to get its house in order quickly. The government has made some strong commitments on energy efficiency and offshore wind, and plans to be the first country to provide climate information from a number of large public and private companies. However, there is no comprehensive, business-wide white paper or detailed strategy for the next decade that the host should require of every major economy. Nor is there a team that can match the weight of the French workforce who achieved the Paris Agreement in 2015. Britain has a lot of capital in Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, who is advising on climate finance in COP26 talks. But the business department and the Treasury Department seem to operate in separate silos.
Twice a week newsletter
Energy is the world’s indispensable business and Energy Source is its newsletter. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Energy Source brings you important news, predictive analysis and inside information straight to your inbox. Login here.
Contradictions have to be ironed out. The UK has supported fossil fuel projects overseas for up to £ 3.5 billion since the Paris Agreement was signed. This is the opposite of what we should be signaling: that poorer countries can overtake fossil fuel technology overall.
How can nations treat each other honestly? One possibility could be to make carbon emissions more central to trade. Mr Biden’s trade policy includes a proposal for carbon adjustment fees to encourage countries exporting to the US to comply with climate and environmental commitments. The EU is planning a carbon border tax to prevent the relocation of industries to countries with less ambitious climate policies.
Both proposals are fraught with complexity and could be self-defeating if they oust the countries from the Paris Agreement. But even if you think so, the conversation can change by showing nations how much can be gained by working together. Tackling the climate can be win-win, but time is running out.
The writer, a former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, is a senior fellow from Harvard