US can either make or break mankind’s climate response

White House
Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/White House

Countries like India, where there is plenty of climate action momentum, need to be supported with the finance and technologies to fund a cleaner carbon-free growth. Next week’s Summit on Climate, hosted by President Biden, will serve as a signal as to how the global community weaves together climate equity and nationalistic priorities.

By Rajesh Mehta and Manickam Valliappan

“I’m no longer sceptical. I no longer have any doubt at all. I think climate change is the major challenge facing the world.” These words from David Attenbourough, widely revered as mother nature’s messenger, are slowly being etched into nations’ socio-political agendas as climate change takes the forefront of global discourse.

Rajesh Mehta
Rajesh Mehta

Following four years of Donald Trump’s denialism, President Joe Biden’s rise is a win for the climate. From his cabinet picks to his swift executive orders and infrastructure spending proposals, climate change has never been given more importance by an American president than the current occupant of the Oval Office. There is willingness, and there is a plan. Now whether Biden can truly be a successful climate president hinges on his execution.

The upcoming Leaders’ Summit on Climate hosted by Biden on April 22 and 23 will serve as a signal as to how the global community weaves together climate equity and nationalistic priorities. Ahead of COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, this November, where nations will review and enhance their climate ambitions, Biden’s summit will serve as a worldwide pep-talk to conduct internal reviews and establish climate stances.

There is no doubt that the summit’s focal point will be on America’s own pledges, but attention will also be given to historical and future emitting nations such as Russia, India and China. There will also be some long-awaited pressure on climate laggards like Australia to step up their game. Brazil, once an active climate leader and a key player, will also be put at an awkward crossroad owing to President Jair Bolsonaro’s climate denialism. South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan will also garner some attention. A significant portion of the climate discussion will rest on India, as it braces for a spike in energy demand over the next two decades because of its growing middle-class population.

READ: The Indo-US climate agenda: the status quo and the road ahead (January 27, 2021)

Manickam Valliappan
Manickam Valliappan

However, there are also certain questions to be raised concerning the selection of the invited countries. Nepal, for instance, is one of the most vulnerable to climate risks but failed to receive an invite. Whether a diplomatic failure or negligence, these countries must also play a vital role in forming a coherent response.

Clearly, the summit will be an opportunity for the US to regain trust from the global community. John Kerry, in his first major speech as US climate czar early this year, said that he regretted his country’s absence in fighting the climate crisis during the Trump era. But trust comes at a heavier price. If Biden were to get the global community aboard his climate ship, he needs to move beyond words. He needs to act.

First, of course, is leading by example. The United States’ commitment to 2050 net-zero emissions is welcome (and long-awaited) and establishes proactive intent. The recent spending proposals are vital to rewire infrastructure and put US on the path of a green transition. Second, and perhaps the most important of them all, is to induce action among the rest of the nations. Ultimatums and demands just aren’t going to cut it. Pushing the developing world beyond their conventional and conservative approaches to economic growth will require the US and the rest of the developing world to mobilize assistance to meet their growing green energy demands.

India is perhaps a classic example of a nation where there is plenty of climate action momentum, but largely lacks the finance and technologies to fund a cleaner carbon-free growth. If India were to accelerate its efforts and establish itself as a climate beacon — and therefore ease any concerns regarding its future emissions — it will need the investments of the developed world. To meet its ambitious renewable energy goals, India will roughly need 11 trillion rupees for effective action. Current green finances only amount to 10% (1.37 trillion rupees) of the required amount, with only 15% of it coming from foreign sources.

READ: World War III is here, and we are asleep at the wheel (August 27, 2020)

Kerry understands this. In March, he said he’s talking to private sector investors to meet India’s climate goals. On Thursday, at the Raisina Dialogue, Kerry established Biden’s intent to assist countries “in the process of raising ambitions of countries all around the world” and that the US-India partnership has great potential in finding new technologies and fuels.

The climate approach needs to be grounded in emissions equity and actualities so that it ensures that there is no futile gridlock between the developed and developing world. We see traces of this pragmatic approach with Kerry’s recent remarks on India’s possible commitment to a net-zero: “It would be great if India wanted to say that (net-zero pledge) but I don’t think it’s an absolute requirement, in the sense that India is doing all the things it needs to do.”

Support funds like the Green Climate Fund (GCF) will have to be expanded to channel green assistance. Biden first must start off by paying the remaining $2 billion that the US owes as a part of the $3 billion pledge made by Obama (and later pulled back by Trump) to the GCF.

Read more columns by Rajesh Mehta

China also must be deftly dealt with. President Xi’s invitation to Biden’s summit and Kerry’s visit to Beijing as the first trip by a Biden official are indications that climate change will be dealt with as a compartmentalized issue. This is welcome because blending geopolitical tensions with the climate can stall progress and pave way for a stand-still. The two major nations — one a leading historical emitter and other the current leading emitter — will need to be on the same page on climate if we were to forge an effective international climate response.

However, even compartmentalization has its limits. Recent proposals such as the global minimum tax have been criticized for their potential detrimental effects on the developing world. If America aims to fight the climate crisis with multilateral co-operations, it cannot abandon the fundamentals of globalization and strip the policy autonomy of developing nations.

Biden taking the helm with a determination to be a climate president signals that proactive climate progress is on the horizon — at least for the next four years. But his determination alone is insufficient. How he manages to reorient the global order toward the climate cause will determine his efficacy. There is ample momentum and appetite for a greener transition among the developing world, but it must be rightly matched by assistance from the liable historical emitters such as the US. Future generations will not judge our climate battle based on our intents, demands, or words. We will be judged on our cooperation and implementation. In this regard, the US can either make or break mankind’s climate response.

(Rajesh Mehta is a leading international consultant and columnist working on Market Entry, Innovation & Public Policy. Manickam Valliappan is a public policy researcher with specific interests in climate change and innovation.)

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