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Biden Resets Climate Policy

Biden Resets Climate Policy

Sunday, 22 November, 2020 - 05:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

When President Donald Trump leaves the White House in two months, some executive orders that he issued will depart with him, especially with regard to climate change and the environment. In a column published four years ago, I described Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement as a transient act, whereas climate change is a continuing reality and established scientific fact. Even though Trump's arrogance has delayed international action to deal with climate change, his actions were not supported by other major players, none of which withdrew from the agreement. On the contrary, other partners consolidated their commitments.

President-elect Joe Biden has made returning to the Paris Agreement his top priority. This means that the United States will soon be a full member to the agreement again. But Biden’s position goes beyond the agreement’s boundaries. His plans to tackle climate change have been described as the most ambitious for a presidential candidate to date. Domestic environmental policies, however, will be the real test. Biden’s plan is based on achieving zero carbon emissions from electricity production by 2035, and from all sectors by 2050. This is an unprecedented goal for the USA, although it falls short of what was stated in the "Green New Deal" proposed by Democratic members of Congress at the beginning of the year, which stipulated that the zero emissions target should be reached by 2030. If some emissions are to be sustained, they must be offset by other means, such as planting forests to absorb carbon or safely capturing and storing it.

The Biden vision stipulates allocating $2 trillion over four years, to raise the level of energy efficiency in four million housing units. The plan promotes shared public transport, allocates huge budget to support the manufacturing of electric cars, stipulates tens of thousands of electric charging centers, and offers incentives to consumers to switch from regular to electric cars. This is in line with the plans adopted by most European countries to stop the production of cars running on fuel over a period of 10 to 15 years. In addition to the efficiency in the building and transportation sectors, the plan supports the expansion of renewable energy production and the implementation of sustainable solutions that maintain the natural balance by harnessing resources in such a way to secure they can be regenerated instead of being depleted and wasted. The Biden plan also promises to re-enact the Clean Air Act and other laws that the Trump administration has suspended or diluted. All of these reversal measures help to protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions, while also creating millions of new jobs.

The Paris Agreement, which was ratified by President Barack Obama in 2016, commits to taking measures to reduce carbon emissions to ensure that the rise in temperature levels does not exceed two degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which was the best compromise that could be reached at that time. During the past four years, scientists have found conclusive evidence that this is not enough, as protecting small island states from drowning calls for limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees.

This requires a faster and greater reduction in carbon emissions than the Paris summit endorsed. Biden’s regime will support the achievement of this goal, which will bring the USA again in line with what China, European Union countries, South Korea and Japan have committed to. Together, these countries represent two-thirds of the global economy and emit more than half of world’s carbon emissions. With Biden at the helm, achieving a 1.5 degree goal has become within reach for the first time.

However, Biden needs the support of both the Senate and Congress. While the Democratic Party controls the Congress, we will have to await the by-elections in Georgia next January for the last two seats in the Senate, to find out who will control the tiny majority. Trump had faced the same situation, as the Democrats were in control of the Congress during his term, but he could bypass this hurdle by issuing a barrage of executive orders. Such orders can be contested in the Supreme Court, but it usually takes too long and can be up for compromises.

The Paris Climate Agreement stipulates that, after a month of notification, a returning country becomes a full member again. Therefore, the United States is expected to regain its seat in February 2021. This provides ample time to participate in the preparations for the next climate summit (COP26), which will be held in Glasgow in November 2021, after it was postponed for a year due to the pandemic. With Biden in charge, this is expected to be the most important climate summit to date, making concrete commitments to an accelerated reduction in carbon emissions, towards reaching zero before 2050.

Despite the political turmoil and economic challenges posed by the corona pandemic, major global economies did not join the Trump administration when it abandoned climate commitments. The coronavirus recovery plans have even put the transition to a green, low-carbon economy at their core. Members of the "old guard" in some Arab countries cheered Trump's withdrawal as an opportunity for oil-exporting Arab countries to abandon energy efficiency measures, and stop the switch to renewable energy and clean production methods. Fortunately, these calls have fallen on deaf ears among governments. Arab oil-producing countries have responded by accelerating their economic transformation programs, which stipulate introducing productive activities beyond oil and gas, strengthening efficiency programs, and allocating huge budgets for renewable and clean energy projects. This trend was particularly evident in the Saudi presidency’s preparations for the G20 summit, which concludes its two-day meetings today. The Saudi leadership of the summit successfully promoted resolutions that secure sustainable growth based on a transition towards green economy.

These bold decisions put Arab oil-producing states in a position to effectively contribute to the global transition policies to low-carbon economies. Their massive investments in efficiency technologies and renewable energy will secure their place at the forefront of the market as a major player in the future of energy, which is not limited to oil and gas.

Arab oil-exporting states, led by Saudi Arabia, did well when they built their long-term plans according to proven scientific facts, not on casual narcissist policies.

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