With the election of Joe Biden, the USA will have a president committed to tackling climate change. This is in stark contrast to Donald Trump, who has been publicly sceptical about the link between human action and climate change and has actively supported the coal, oil and gas industries and has rolled back environmental protection legislation and regulation.
What is more, in June 2017, he announced that the USA would withdraw from the UN Paris Accord, the international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions so as to limit global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels with efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. The USA’s withdrawal was finalised on 4 November 2020, a day after the US election. Joe Biden, however, pledged to rejoin the accord.
A growing number of countries are pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century or earlier. The EU is planning to achieve a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 so as to reach neutrality by 2050. This will involve various taxes, subsidies and public investment. Similar pledges to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 have been made by Japan and South Korea and by 2060 by China. In the UK, legislation was passed requiring the government to reduce the UK’s net emissions 100% relative to 1990 levels by 2050 and thereby achieve net zero emissions.
Constraints on action
Short-termism. One of the problems with setting targets a long time in the future is that they take away the urgency to act now. There are huge time lags between introducing policies to curb carbon emissions and their impact on the climate. The costs of such policies for business and consumers, however, are felt immediately in terms of higher taxes and/or higher prices. Thus politicians may be quick to make long-term pledges but reluctant to take firm measures today. Instead they may prefer to appease various pressure groups, such as motoring organisations, and cut fuel taxes, or, at least, not raise them. Politically, then, it may be easier to focus policy on the short term and just make pledges without action for the future.
Externalities. Various activities that cause carbon emissions, whether directly, such as heavy industry, dairy farming, aviation and shipping, or indirectly, such as oil and coal production, thereby impose environmental costs on society, both at home and abroad. These costs are negative externalities and, by their nature, are not borne by those who produce them. There are often powerful lobbies objecting to any attempt to internalise these externalities through taxes, subsidising green alternatives or regulation. Take the case of the USA. Fossil fuel producers, energy-intensive industries and farmers all claim that green policies will damage their businesses, leading to a loss of profits and jobs. These groups were courted by Donald Trump.
International competition. Countries may well be reluctant to impose green taxes or tough environmental regulation on producers, when competitors abroad do not face such constraints. Indeed, some countries are actively promoting dirty industries as part of their policies to stimulate economic recovery from the Covid-induced recession. Such countries include China, Russia and Turkey. This again was a major argument used in the Trump campaign that US industries should not be hobbled by environmental constraints but should be free to compete.
Misinformation. Politicians, knowing that taking tough environmental measures will be unpopular with large numbers of people, may well downplay the dangers of inaction. Some, such as Trump in America and Bolsonaro in Brazil deliberately appeal to climate change deniers or say that technology will sort things out. This makes it hard for other politicians to promote green policies, knowing that they will face scepticism about the science and the efficacy of their proposed policies.
Biden’s climate change policy
Although it will be difficult to persuade some Americans of the need for tougher policies to tackle climate change, Joe Biden has already made a number of pledges. He has stated that under his administration, the USA will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and will play a leading role in the November 2021 UN COP26 climate change conference summit in Glasgow. He has also pledged a Clean Energy Revolution to put the USA on an ‘irreversible path to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than 2050’.
But readopting the pledges under the Paris Agreement and advocating a clean energy revolution are not enough on their own. Specific measures will need to be taken. So, what can be done that is practical and likely to meet with the approval of the majority of Americans or, at least, of Biden’s supporters?
For a start, he can reintroduce many of the regulations that were overturned by the Trump administration, such as preventing oil and gas companies from flaring methane on public lands. He could introduce funding for the development of green technology. He could require public buildings to use green energy.
According to the Clean Energy Revolution, the US government will develop ‘rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be zero emissions and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles’.
One of the biggest commitments is to tackle external costs directly by enacting ‘legislation requiring polluters to bear the full cost of their climate pollution’. This may be met with considerable resistance from US corporations. It is thus politically important for Biden to stress the short-term benefits of his policies, not just the long-term ones.
Given the damage done to the economy by the spread of the pandemic, perhaps the main thing that Biden can do to persuade people of the benefits to them of his policies is to focus on green investment and green jobs. Building a green energy infrastructure of wind, solar and hydro and investing in zero-emissions vehicles and charging infrastructure will provide jobs and lead to multiplier effects throughout the economy.
- Trump Administration Removes Scientist in Charge of Assessing Climate Change
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- As U.S. leaves Paris accord, climate policy hangs on election outcome
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- Where next for US action on Climate Change?
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- Media reaction: What Joe Biden’s US election victory means for climate change
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- ‘Hypocrites and greenwash’: Greta Thunberg blasts leaders over climate crisis
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- Biden’s climate change plans can quickly raise the bar, but can they be transformative?
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- Identify three specific climate change policies of Joe Biden and assess whether each one is likely to succeed.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate why a free market will lead to over production of a good which produces negative externalities.
- To what extent can education internalise the positive externalities of green consumption and production?
- What was agreed at the Paris climate change conference in December 2015 and what mechanisms were put in place to incentivise countries to meet the targets?
- Will the coronavirus pandemic have had any lasting effects on emissions? Explain.
- How may carbon trading lead to a reduction in carbon emissions? What determines the size of such reductions?
In 2015, at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, an agreement was reached between the 195 countries present. The Paris agreement committed countries to limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C and preferably to no more than 1.5°C. above pre-industrial levels. To do this, a ‘cap-and-trade’ system would be adopted, with countries agreeing to limits to their emissions and then being able to buy emissions credits to exceed these limits from countries which had managed to emit below their limits. However, to implement the agreement, countries would need to adopt a ‘rulebook’ about how the permitted limits would be applied, how governments would measure and report emissions cuts, how the figures would be verified and just how a cap-and-trade system would work.
At the COP24 meeting from 2 to 15 December 2018 in Katowice, Poland, nearly 14 000 delegates from 196 countries discussed the details of a rulebook. Despite some 2800 points of contention and some difficult and heated negotiations, agreement was finally reached. Rules for targeting, measuring and verifying emissions have been accepted. If countries exceed their limits, they must explain why and also how they will meet them in future. Rich countries agreed to provide help to poor countries in curbing their emissions and adapting to rising sea levels, droughts, floods and other climate-induced problems.
But no details have been agreed on the system of carbon trading, thanks to objections from the Brazilian delegates, who felt that insufficient account would be made of their country’s existing promises on not chopping down parts of the Amazon rainforest.
Most seriously, the measures already agreed which would be covered by the rulebook will be insufficient to meet the 2°C, let alone the 1.5°C, target. The majority of the measures are voluntary ‘nationally determined contributions’, which countries are required to submit under the Paris agreement. These, so far, would probably be sufficient to limit global warming to only around 3°C, at which level there would be massive environmental, economic and social consequences.
There was, however, a belief among delegates that further strong international action was required. Indeed, under the Paris agreement, emissions limits to keep global warming to the ‘well below 2°C’ level must be agreed by 2020.
Climate change is a case of severe market failure. A large proportion of the external costs of pollution are borne outside the countries where the emitters are based. This creates a disincentive for countries acting alone to internalise all these externalities through the tax system or charges, or to regulate them toughly. Only by countries taking an international perspective and by acting collectively can the externalities be seen as a fully internal problem.
Even though most governments recognise the nature and scale of the problem, one of the biggest problems they face is in persuading people that it is in their interests to cut carbon emissions – something that may become increasingly difficult with the rise in populism and the realisation that higher fuel and other prices will make people poorer in the short term.
- To what extent can the atmosphere been seen as a ‘global commons’?
- What incentives might be given for business to make ‘green investments’?
- To what extent might changes in technology help businesses and consumers to ‘go green’?
- Why might international negotiations over tackling climate change result in a prisoner’s dilemma problem? What steps could be taken to tackle the problem?
- How would an emissions cap-and-trade system work?
- Investigate the Brazilian objections to the proposals for emissions credits. Were the delegates justified in their objections?
- What types of initiative could businesses take to tackle ‘supply chain emissions’?
- How could countries, such as the USA, be persuaded to reduce their reliance on coal – an industry lauded by President Trump?
In December 2015, countries from around the world met in Paris at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The key element of the resulting Paris Agreement was to keep ‘global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.’ At the same time it was agreed that the IPCC would conduct an analysis of what would need to be done to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The IPPC has just published its report.
The report, based on more than 6000 scientific studies, has been compiled by more than 80 of the world’s top climate scientists. It states that, with no additional action to mitigate climate change beyond that committed in the Paris Agreement, global temperatures are likely to rise to the 1.5°C point somewhere between 2030 and 2040 and then continue rising above that, reaching 3°C by the end of the century.
According to the report, the effects we are already seeing will accelerate. Sea levels will rise as land ice caps and glaciers melt, threatening low lying coastal areas; droughts and floods will become more severe; hurricanes and cyclones will become stronger; the habits of many animals will become degraded and species will become extinct; more coral reefs will die and fish species disappear; more land will become uninhabitable; more displacement and migration will take place, leading to political tensions and worse.
The problem of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. This is where people overuse common resources, such as open grazing land, fishing grounds, or, in this case, the atmosphere as a dump for emissions. They do so because there is little, if any, direct short-term cost to themselves. Instead, the bulk of the cost is borne by others – especially in the future.
There is another related tragedy, which has been dubbed the ‘tragedy of incumbents’. This is a political problem where people in power want to retain that power and do so by appealing to short-term selfish interests. The Trump administration lauds the use of energy as helping to drive the US economy and make people better off. To paraphrase Donald Trump ‘Climate change may be happening, but, hey, let’s not beat ourselves up about it and wear hair shirts. What we do will have little or no effect compared with what’s happening in China and India. The USA is much better off with a strong automobile, oil and power sector.’
What’s to be done?
According to the IPCC report, if warming is not to exceed 1.5℃, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and by 100% by around 2050. But is this achievable?
The commitments made in the Paris Agreement will not be nearly enough to achieve these reductions. There needs to be a massive movement away from fossil fuels, with between 70% and 85% of global electricity production being from renewables by 2050. There needs to be huge investment in green technology for power generation, transport and industrial production.
In addition, the report recommends investing in atmospheric carbon extraction technologies. Other policies to reduce carbon include massive reforestation.
Both these types of policies involve governments taking action, whether through increased carbon taxes on either producers or consumer or both, or through increased subsidies for renewables and other alternatives, or through the use of cap and trade with emissions allocations (either given by government or sold at auction) and carbon trading, or through the use of regulation to prohibit or limit behaviour that leads to emissions. The issue, of course, is whether governments have the will to do anything. Some governments do, but with the election of populist leaders, such as President Trump in the USA, and probably Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and with sceptical governments in other countries, such as Australia, this puts even more onus on other governments.
Another avenue is a change in people’s attitudes, which may be influenced by education, governments, pressure groups, news media, etc. For example, if people could be persuaded to eat less meat, drive less (for example, by taking public transport, walking, cycling, car sharing or living nearer to their work), go on fewer holidays, heat their houses less, move to smaller homes, install better insulation, etc., these would all reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, there is the hope that the market may provide part of the solution. The cost of generating electricity from renewables is coming down and is becoming increasingly competitive with electricity generated from fossil fuels. Electric cars are coming down in price as battery technology develops; also, battery capacity is increasing and recharging is becoming quicker, helping encourage the switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric and hybrid cars. At the same time, various industrial processes are becoming more fuel efficient. But these developments, although helpful, will not be enough to achieve the 1.5°C target on their own.
Videos and audio
- We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or face more floods
The Guardian, Nicholas Stern (8/10/18)
- Rapid, unprecedented change needed to halt global warming – U.N.
Reuters, Nina Chestney and Jane Chung (8/10/18)
- Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’
BBC News, Matt McGrath (8/10/18)
- New UN report outlines ‘urgent, transformational’ change needed to hold global warming to 1.5°C
The Conversation, Mark Howden and Rebecca Colvin (8/10/18)
- Earth’s temperature to rise 1.5C as early as 2030 amid dire warnings from UN climate panel
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- UN Climate Change Report: Everything You Need To Know
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- Thirty years of the IPCC
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- Climate change impacts worse than expected, global report warns
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- World to miss Paris climate targets by wide margin, says UN panel
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- We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN
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- Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible – if there is political will
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- The Trump administration has entered Stage 5 climate denial
The Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli (8/10/18)
- ‘Unprecedented changes’ needed to stop global warming as UN report reveals islands starting to vanish and coral reefs dying
Independent, Josh Gabbatiss (8/10/18)
- Explain the extent to which the problem of global warming is an example of the tragedy of the commons. What other examples are there of the tragedy?
- Explain the meaning of the tragedy of the incumbents and its impact on climate change? Does the length of the electoral cycle exacerbate the problem?
- With the costs of low or zero carbon technology for energy and transport coming down, is there as case for doing nothing in response to the problem of global warming?
- Examine the case for and against using taxes and subsidies to tackle global warming.
- Examine the case for and against using regulation to tackle global warming.
- Examine the case for and against using cap-and-trade systems to tackle global warming.
- Is there a prisoners’ dilemma problem in getting governments to adopt policies to tackle climate change?
- What would be the motivation for individuals to ‘do their bit’ to tackle climate change? Other than altering prices or using regulation, how might the government or other agencies set about persuading people to ‘be more green’?
- If you were doing a cost–benefit analysis of some project that will have beneficial environmental impacts in the future, how would you set about adjusting the values of these benefits for the fact that they occur in the future and not now?