US President-Elect Joe Biden recently vowed to re-join The Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office, overturning the historical Trump administration abandonment of the Climate accord finalized on November 4th,2020. Trump strongly criticized the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate reached by the Obama Administration. Trump’s motivated his decision on the reduction of jobs and the impositions of wide-spread regulation on the US economy which participation in the agreement would imply. In 2017, Trump announced his wish for the US’s exit from the agreement, meanwhile nearly one-fifth of all global emissions come from the US. Critics of this move by the previous president have pointed to the possibility that this move will undercut global efforts to reduce carbon output and investment and transition into renewable resources. Alongside this policy decision, the Trump administration also rolled back climate regulation at the federal level. Yet, 34 states, led by NY and California, have begun engaging in state-level carbon reduction efforts despite the President’s efforts.
Paris Climate Agreement
In 2015, 270 countries convene in Paris intending to reach an agreement that would curb worldwide carbon emissions. The agreement stipulated emission reduction goals which would the global temperature increase by the end of the century at 2% above pre-industrial levels. The goal considers differential levels of development, population, and current emissions among countries, and each country is saddled with a goal that is therefore commensurate with their capacity. The agreement, nevertheless, does not pair the establishment of emission reduction goals with an enforcement apparatus, leaving countries a substantial amount of discretion in meeting their goals. This also means that the goals are non-binding and countries are not liable for punishment under the terms of the agreement for not meeting their reduction goals. Countries may meet their goals through a combination of energy efficiency, renewable energy subsidization, business regulation. As part of the conference, Wealthier countries, historical beneficiaries of fossil-fuel-based technologies that have overwhelmingly contributed to climate change, created a fund destined to aid in the energy transition of developing countries, educating the population, and seizing of fossil-fuel subsidies. The agreement has seen ratification, by November of 2020, by all but three countries with shares of greater than 1% of world emissions: The United States, Iran, and Turkey.
Importance of the Paris Climate Agreement
If the attempt to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions is to be successful, a concerted effort on the part of all nations is a bare necessity, since even the top 3 emitters, China, the United States, and the European Union, form only 50% of global emissions. Moreover, those countries which do not adhere to the agreement can, at least in the short term, wield a competitive advantage of those countries directing resources towards the sustainable restructuring of the economies. Therefore, universal participation is important in incentivizing as many countries as possible to adhere to their commitments to climate change reversal without fear of loss of competitive advantage in the global economy.
The Disproportionate Effect of Climate Change on Developing Nations
Developing countries tend to have the lowest emissions of Greenhouse gases, yet, they bear the brunt of the damage to be caused by Global Climate Change. Developing countries contend with great levels of food and water insecurity, limited access to medicine, and poor infrastructure. Over 600 million people live in areas threatened by sea-level rise, which scientists directly link to the effects of infrared radiation entrapment caused by carbon emissions in the atmosphere. And an overwhelming portion of those 600 million lives in developing countries. Climate Change concerns in developing nations place them in a dilemma, as the use of the very fossil-fuel-powered technologies which made the countries that in many cases held colonial sway over them for centuries threatens their destruction. Thus, many developing nations have sought to reconcile the necessary economic growth to better than the standard of living and lives of their citizens with the use of green technology. In 2017, 63% of investment in renewable energy came from developing countries, with Brazil, India, and China accounting alone accounting for half of the global investment. As the ancient proverb dictates, necessity is the mother of invention, and also, as seen here, investment. Perhaps, it is no surprise that those countries which are most liable to be negatively affected by climate change are the ones taking the most strident steps to build economies that will deter its development but this phenomenon does reveal something interesting. By the virtue of being the center of green energy investment and constituting a substantial part of the world’s population, developing nations such as Brazil, China, and India will, in this century, construct global infrastructure with a phenomenal focus on sustainability and place pressure, employing their economic and political influence, on other nations to do the same. This proposed domino effect will strengthen and accelerate the transition to a sustainable, green-energy powered world order.
The US, Climate Change, and the Paris Agreement
Under the Paris Agreement, the US agreed to reduce carbon emissions by 26% from 2005 to 2025. By June 2017, the US had already decreased emissions by 14% meanwhile maintaining economic growth. Many at home, and abroad, express that universal willingness among the ruling party in the senate, house of representatives, and the presidency will be necessary for a continued and successful effort at meeting the US reduction goals. The US is necessarily a key player in the climate change discussion and in any efforts at overturning it as it alone produces 18% of global emissions while representing a mere 4% of the global population. Trump’s initial suggestion that the US should leave the agreement sent shockwaves throughout the international community. Fears were that the US’s shirking its role in the agreement, given its outsized position in both securing its legitimacy and as a leading polluter, would motivate other countries to leave the agreement as well. This fear, has, fortunately, not materialized, and we even saw Russia, another major polluter, join the agreement in 2019.
Policy Rollbacks and their effect
In 2019, the Trump administration instituted over fifty climate policy rollbacks. A vast number of policy rollbacks are estimated to lead to 2030 greenhouse gas emissions three percent higher than the Climate Action Tracker’s (CAT) projections with said policies still in place. CAT’s total projections for 2030, accounting for implementation of the rollbacks, is 2% lower than the 2016 estimation around the ascension of Trump to the presidency of the United States. This represents a 13% decrease from 2015 emission levels by 2030. Two oppositional forces seem to cancel one another out. Increased emissions caused by rollbacks have, thus far, been counteracted by lower emissions projections in the electricity generation sector caused by power generation mix changes, and the increasing displacement of coal by gas and cheaper renewables (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2019). Thus, the mechanisms of the free market seemed to have dampened the effects of supposed failures in government policy to adequately handle what is considered by an overwhelming portion of the world population an existential crisis threatening humanity’s extended survival.
The Role of Market Forces
Fossil fuels, like all technologies, have their use, but diminishing returns, often caused by changes in circumstance and the invention of more promising methods and processes, have rendered them increasingly unpalatable even on a purely economic basis. The decrease in the price of renewables and gas is placing great economic pressure on the coal industry causing coal-fired power to become increasingly economic inviable. Eight coal producers filed for bankruptcy in 2019 (New York Times). Current carbon emission projections take these market forces into account and demonstrate that despite the Trump Administration’s replacement of the Clean Power Plan (CPP) put into effect under the previous Obama Administration intending to help US society and business transition to greater green energy use, the power sector will nevertheless overachieve the CPP’s original emission reduction target of 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. As free-market advocates love to espouse, coal-powered solutions seem to be on their way out as they are slowly replaced by ever-more efficient green solutions, the use of which by companies is driven by consumer demand and shareholder mandate. In our modern economy driven by the needs of an increasingly climate-conscious populace, those companies and countries which insist on pursuing the energy solutions of the past will most likely find themselves in direr and direr straits.
From Trump to Biden
The 45th and 46th US presidents could not be further in their actions and plans for environmental policy. Trump, in one of his many inflammatory speeches, referred to climate change as a “hoax,” and even engaged in a campaign to remove the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, a treaty in which nations merely pledged to abide by voluntary limits to greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas, Biden considers climate change an emergency, vowing to rejoin the Paris Agreement and to convene a global climate summit with the hope to persuade world leaders of more ambitious, and most importantly, enforceable targets for greenhouse gas emissions. Throughput his presidency, Trump revealed his desire to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to private oil exploration efforts. Biden has, moreover, vowed to seize the opening of new oil pipelines, regulate mercury and carbon pollution from coal powerplants, and set stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. While Trump supported through his presidency the unobstructed growth of the fossil fuel industry, which nevertheless the market did not desire, Biden favors completely seizing all fossil fuel subsidies. Interestingly, taking a more libertarian position on the issue than a great part of Trump’s voter base by, allowing coal-powered solutions to compete on whatever merits they may yet doubtfully possess. While Trump reduced and put an end to regulations that limited coal production, Biden maintains that cheap renewable energy has eliminated US demand for new coal production plants. With the transition between the Trump to Biden administration, the US is likely to see an across-the-board increase in environmental regulation and great government-led investment in green energy. Most importantly, the US will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.
The Trump administration’s abandonment of the Paris Agreement seems to have ultimately been rendered futile, both by market forces that make traditional fossil fuels a more unpalatable and increasingly sub-optimal choice for both investors and industrialists and by an ideologically opposed incoming Biden Presidency. Although many feared that the US leaving the agreement would lead to an overall breakdown of global efforts to curb carbon emissions, all other signatory countries kept to their word, reinforcing the near-universal belief that such a crisis may only be overcome with the Omni-lateral support of all nations. Such effort to overcome the climate crisis is led by developing nations seeking to reconcile economic growth and environmental protection, steering away from the destructive path which many now developed nations undertook. It remains to be seen what direct impact the US rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement will truly have on furthering decreases in carbon emissions since leading states such as New York and California remained adamant about the climate change reversal efforts regardless of the presidential mandate. But, it can be viewed as a commitment by the incoming Biden presidency to partake directly in a concerted national effort to combat the climate crisis. The Corona Virus Pandemic which has gripped the world has stalled the economies of nations around the world. Will this be used as a unifying motivation, which when espoused by the Biden Presidency, will accelerate green-energy investment and secure the US’s place at the top of a new world order seeking to replace the one it, itself, created? Whatever the future holds in store for us, both future miracles and catastrophizes are likely to be related to the environment. Despite the specter of looming doom, there is hope, as Charlie Chaplin powerfully exclaimed in the 1940 film “The Great Dictator,”that “the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.” We must believe that although “we may have lost our way,” our “way of life” can yet be “free and beautiful.”