“Global warming is an existential threat to humanity,” responded Biden, deploying language that might resonate with one former Australian PM. “We have a moral obligation to deal with it and we’re told by all the leading scientists in the world we don’t have much time.”
Pushed on the issue of fossil fuels, Biden confirmed: “I would transition from the oil industry, yes”, citing the plummeting cost of renewable technologies.
Trump pounced. “He is going to destroy the oil industry,” he declared. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?”
The moment was widely reported as a Biden gaffe, especially as fossil fuel-rich Pennsylvania might decide the election, and in the days that followed Trump and his surrogates focused on the theme.
But aside from clarifying that he would not act to kill off fossil fuel industries but merely end subsidies to them, Biden did not back down.
In an interview days later on the Democrat-friendly podcast Pod Save America, he reiterated the point. “[Climate change] is the number one issue facing humanity and it is the number one issue for me,” he said. “Climate change is the existential threat to humanity; unchecked it is going to actually bake this planet. This is not hyperbole, it is real, and we have a moral obligation [to act], not just to young people but to everyone.”
In recent months a handful of seismic shifts have reshaped global climate change efforts, replacing political recalcitrance with ambition and co-operation.
A Biden victory in the US election would add to this movement, potentially even putting some of the world’s Paris Agreement targets in sight, say more optimistic observers.
To understand how we got to this point, it helps to look back at the history of climate change negotiations.
Barack Obama was elected in 2008 on a progressive platform that included climate action, but as he focused on healthcare reform he was shocked by his failure to breathe ambition into the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen.
Obama was determined that when the world met again in Paris in 2015 it would agree to meaningful targets, and to ensure that happened he shocked the world in 2014 by signing a bilateral agreement with China to cut emissions. The US agreed to emit 26 to 28 per cent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005, doubling its pace of reduction. China pledged to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030.
The purpose of the agreement, Obama’s chief of staff John Podesta recently told the Australian journalist Marian Wilkinson, was to “send a powerful signal that the two largest economies in the world were reorienting towards a clean-energy economy”.
With China and the US in lockstep with the European Union, significant global action on climate change seemed inevitable.
A year later, the Paris Agreement gave a framework for such action: signatories agreed to cut emissions with the aim of limiting the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.
Then Donald Trump was elected on a platform that included scepticism towards climate change and mistrust of international treaties. He announced he would pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. By legal happenstance, the soonest he is able to do that is on November 4 – the day after the US presidential election.
Biden and the ‘plastic hour’
The world has changed more dramatically than anyone might have envisioned since Trump was elected. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air – 288 parts per million (PPM) before the industrial era – has grown from 402 PPM to 414 PPM in four years. Glaciers are retreating and the warming sediments beneath the Arctic Ocean have begun venting methane.
But also over the past four years the cost of renewable energy has plummeted so far and so fast that in its most recent analysis, in October, the International Energy Agency (IEA) declared solar was the cheapest energy source in history.
The International Renewable Energy Agency now predicts that next year it will become cheaper to decommission older coal-fired power stations and replace them with utility-scale solar than it would be to keep running the plants in the first place.
The IEA now believes that peak coal has passed, that peak oil will hit within a decade and that with government action to see it out, peak gas will follow in the years after.
Early this year in the US a shell-shocked Democratic Party opted for a centrist in making Joe Biden its candidate. Determined to confront Trump with a unified party, he mended fences with the party’s progressive wing by adopting large sections of a green stimulus package first championed by left-wing Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
After the 2008 economic crash, Obama had pumped a record $US90 billion ($130 billion) into green tech. By comparison, Biden’s plan calls for an injection of over $US2 trillion. It is a plan so bold that global energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie recently published a paper saying that a Biden loss would end any chance the US has of decarbonising its economy by 2050.
According to the paper’s analysis, the plan would see “capital investments in renewable energy and energy storage assets top $US2.2 trillion through 2035. Utility-scale solar demand will soar to over 100 gigawatts per year, while battery storage capacity will surpass 400 GW – nearly 40 per cent of the total installed power generating capacity of the US in 2020. Coal-fired generation will exit the market in its entirety.”
In recent weeks China, Japan and South Korea have announced plans to harness new cheap energy technology to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century.
The fossil fuel industry has suffered a capital flight as wealth is extracted from the old industries and put into the new. Insurers and banks are following the cash out the door, with ANZ becoming the most recent in Australia to announce it would reduce its exposure to coal.
In another era this change might have been slowed by political inertia, but with the onset of COVID-19, governments are freer than before to embark on spending sprees.
In The Atlantic last month the writer George Packer, quoting philosopher Gershom Scholem, observed that America was entering a “plastic hour”, when ossified social and political orders were suddenly rendered pliable.
Packer argued that should Biden win he has a greater chance of seeing his “breathtaking” agenda adopted than previous incumbents because many of the reforms he proposes are not centred on climate change but on jobs, infrastructure and innovation support needed to confront the crisis.
The new space race
Herve Lemahieu, a Lowy Institute specialist in global diplomacy, believes a Biden victory would “make the hope of a climate change that is restricted to 2 degrees more realistic, more feasible again”.
More significantly, though, Lemahieu believes decarbonisation competition is already emerging.
“Climate change has usually been described in terms of, you know, win-win co-operation and the need for countries to put aside their geopolitical differences in order to co-operate on this larger objective,” he says. “That’s all true to an extent. But equally it is an arena for state competition, and first mover’s advantages will be critical in delivering technologic dividends and economic growth and advantages in soft power.”
Competition also serves to shift nation states’ power relative to one another, and Australia’s failure to act on climate change has already damaged it, Lemahieu says.
“If Biden wins, you will essentially have more or less the West as a whole aligned on the need for achieving carbon neutrality at some point this century, and on the other hand you have Australia.”
On Thursday Trump stripped protections from Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, opening one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests to logging. Earlier this year the Brookings Institution counted 74 actions by the White House to weaken environmental protections.
Yet Dean Bialek, a former Australian diplomat at the United Nations who now serves as a political adviser in Britain in the run-up to the Glasgow climate talks, believes a tipping point has been reached and the actions of industries and state governments will see US emissions decline even with Trump in office. Clearly, though, without an activist White House the urgency would decline.
“One thing that [Biden] has very clearly said in his policy platform is that he is willing to impose carbon adjustments and fees on carbon-intensive goods, particularly from countries failing to meet climate and environmental obligations,” Bialek adds. “And he has also said he will potentially condition future trade agreements on enhanced Paris climate targets.”
After South Korea announced its net zero target on Wednesday, following China and Japan, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was defiant.
“I am not concerned about our future exports,” he said. “Our policies won’t be set in the United Kingdom, they won’t be set in Brussels, they won’t be set in any part of the world other than here.”
Lemahieu says that stance presents a risk to Australia.
“Previously we could perhaps safely claim that … if not aligned with Europe and the advanced Western economies, we were at least aligned with the standard climate policies of the rest of Asia, but the rest of Asia has shifted now.”
A Democratic White House could see Australia even further isolated.
Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.
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