US elections 2020: What it means for climate change?

Joe Biden, with his support for the Paris Agreement, looks like the lesser of the two evils when compared with Donald Trump

Hottest climate, The Federal
When the US rejected the Paris deal, countries like Brazil and Saudi Arabia too cut their emission targets. Poor countries and small island nations would be the worst affected by big players’ inaction.

The United States will elect its new (or re-elects the old) President soon. While the world, especially American citizens, await the results with baited breaths, climate advocates aren’t so enthusiastic about the outcome. Reason? The consequences of this US election will spell ecological destruction, regardless of the result. What may change is the timeline and extent of the damage, depending on who wins — sooner, if Donald Trump is re-elected, prolonged, if Joe Biden triumphs.

Democrat Biden has a slight edge over Republican Trump in climate credentials.

Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan commits to spending extensively on climate-friendly infrastructure and sets a ‘Net Zero by 2050’ target for the US.

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It would be safe to say that Trump does not have any climate credentials. He has consistently mocked at all those who warned of an impending crisis awaiting the Earth. As the President of one of world’s most influential countries, Trump reversed decades of action, regulation and coalition-building on climate change.

A compilation of some of Trump’s most famous quotes on climate change. | Source: BBC

Support for fossil fuel industry may continue

The coal industry has benefited under Trump. The companies have made the most of their ties to the Trump administration to win bailouts for failing coal-fired power plants. US media reports claim these companies even tried to gain access to public funds required for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID) relief for struggling citizens. Despite the all-out efforts, the coal industry’s fortunes have failed to revive.

As the second-in-command to the then President Barack Obama, Biden was complicit in allowing the largest expansion of natural gas production in the US. Biden views natural gas as a ‘bridge’ in the world’s transition to renewable energy, despite the chemical toxicity of the process, methane leaks and infrastructure lock-in that make it anything but ‘clean energy’.

Biden also has ties to the fossil fuel industry, consulting with Heather Zichal, a former board member of a natural gas company, for climate advice for his campaign.

Biden, still, is better than the incumbent POTUS. His climate plan pledges to achieve 100 per cent clean electricity by 2035 and invest heavily in clean-energy research. His campaign focuses on job-creation in clean energy sector and promoting electric vehicles.

The future of Paris Agreement is at stake

November 4, the day after the election, is the date set for the US to officially withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the international accord to halt the impact of climate change. It was on Trump’s whims and fancies that the US agreed to step out of the global deal, considered necessary if the human race has to survive and thrive.

The Washington Post has listed the ways in which the Trump administration has already caused damage: not making payments to the Green Climate Fund, blocking progress at the Arctic Council and teaming up with oil and gas-rich Russia and Saudi Arabia to water down language about the urgency of climate change during international negotiations.

On a positive note, Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement, if elected. Even before Trump became the President, the US was set to miss its Paris commitment to lower carbon emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels through 2025. Biden has the chance to bring in some course correction and partner with countries like China and Japan in setting a Net Zero target.

Re-enforcing environmental regulations will be tough

Trump, who thinks climate advocacy is bad for jobs and economy, has eased out about 150 climate-friendly regulations over the past four years, including those related to tailpipe emissions, endangered wildlife and rainforest protection.

Biden, if re-elected, will have a big task in hand restoring these regulations, which could take US emissions and biodiversity impacts past their safe thresholds.

Climate Justice – The poor would suffer the most

The worst affected by climate crisis are the poor and marginalized. So if Trump is re-elected then it would only widen the divide between the rich and the poor. With no or little funding from the government, the poor will be left on the front to bear the brunt of extreme climate events like floods, droughts etc.

Biden has a logical environmental justice plan, which gives the disadvantaged people about 40 per cent of overall benefits of spending in clean energy, water, transit, etc. He has also pledged to ensure participatory decision-making for the communities involved and hold polluters accountable.

Biden, however, has steadfastly refused to endorse the Green New Deal, which has major provisions for frontline communities.

Also read: India needs better greenhouse gases emission control strategies

What it means for the world?

Germanwatch’s annual assessment has ranked US the lowest on the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) in 2020. The US is also currently the largest per capita emitter of GHGs.

When the US rejected the Paris deal, countries like Brazil and Saudi Arabia too cut their emission targets. Poor countries and small island nations would be the worst affected by big players’ inaction as they battle severe storms, climate-driven human migration and agricultural losses due to weather extremes.

Given a choice, climate advocates would bet on Biden to be the next POTUS.

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