Biden’s Climate Policy — What’s Missing?

A fair shares approach could help save the “net zero 2050” strategy

Originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus


Was Joe Biden’s climate summit a success? The answer has to be “compared to what?”

If Trumpism is our point of comparison, then Biden’s agenda imagines an amazing reboot. Its centerpiece, after all, is a pledge to reduce U.S. domestic emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and while it’s easy to say this isn’t enough—I will do so myself, just below—it’s also easy to say that, in today’s America, cutting emissions in half in nine years would be an astonishing accomplishment.

Cuts of this magnitude are certainly possible. They would almost be easy, if we had a stable and well-functioning government, especially now that the renewable energy revolution is finally hitting its inflection point. But though green electricity will soon be too cheap to meter, the path forward is still strewn with obstacles, and the fossil-energy cartel fully intends to play out a long endgame. We can hope to cut it short, but we’ll need a coherent, fairness-forward industrial and social policy (including a Green New Deal), and a global breakthrough in the bargain. Winning either is going to be quite a challenge in today’s America, harrowed as it is by a lunatic right.

If, however, science is our point of comparison, matters look different. Witness the IPCC’s 2018 special report on Global warming of 1.5°C, which after decades of denial and delay somehow managed to tell us, in a way we could actually hear, that we have to act at a speed and on a scale that have “no documented historic precedent.” Its rather dry declaration—“In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range)”—was widely read as a call to arms.

After Denialism

You wouldn’t have expected such words to define a major international pivot, but they did. They inspired the “net zero 2050” and the “50 percent cuts by 2030” targets, which are now everywhere and have even reshaped the international negotiations. Virtually all countries are being asked to strengthen their short-term pledges of climate action (also known as “nationally determined contributions”, or NDCs) so they plausibly align with net zero 2050. More than 30 have done so, with mid-century net zero targets set or proposed in law and policy, and many, many others are actively discussing such targets. All of which is to say that, even though the activist community hates the “net” word, “net zero 2050” has gone mainstream and taken on an almost normative air. You’re nobody in the climate world if you haven’t at least gestured at a net zero 2050 pledge.

Which is not the problem. The problem is rather that, while the IPCC asserted net zero 2050 and 50 percent by 2030 as global benchmarks, they are being taken as national benchmarks. In fact, they are being conflated—by national leaders everywhere and even by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres—with basic, good-faith earnestness, as if achieving net zero 2050 was “an important yardstick by which climate pledges by major economies are to be judged,” as if, that is, it defined fair national pledges. Here I’m quoting an important statement by Navroz Dubash, Harald Winkler and Lavanya Rajamani—three widely respected developing world climate policy analysts—who warn that net zero 2050 targets do “not account for considerations of justice across countries, important differences in national climate politics, or the credibility of pledges.”

National net zero targets are not a proper guide to national fair shares. Ours is a world in which some countries are fantastically rich, while others are not, in which some countries have emitted huge amounts of greenhouse gases, while others have not. Yet the international push for these 2030 and 2050 targets takes little account of these defining facts. So little that, with stronger 2030 pledges high on the climate agenda, even rich countries like the United States can get away with adopting the global average figure—the 50 percent by 2030 reduction target—and expect it to be widely accepted as being fair enough.

None of this is the fault of the Biden administration, which entered onto a stage where the net zero 2050 bandwagon was already a major force. And why not? A universal global push for more or less equivalent net zero targets is a blunt and dubious strategy, but it’s easy to understand, and with the global average warming hitting 1.2°C and a reboot in the cards, something had to be done. In late February, the U.N.’s climate secretariat issued a synthesis report tallying new and updated commitments, which at that point included 75 of the 191 nations that had signed the Paris Agreement. These included neither the United States nor China, but still the weakness of the collective commitment was frightening—it came to a mere one percent reduction from the 2010 baseline. Secretary-General Guterres announced that “governments are nowhere close to the level of ambition needed to limit climate change to 1.5°C degrees and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.” Both Joe Biden and Xi Jinping knew they had to act, and as per the strategy, both did.

Few people within the U.S. climate movement were really surprised when the Biden administration aligned with the 50 percent by 2030 target, or by the paltry amount of climate finance he proposed to accompany the alignment. That said, there was significant movement resistance, on three lines: there was a call for a stronger 2030 domestic reduction target, as for example the 70 percent featured in the U.S. Climate Action Network’s Vision for Equitable Climate Action; there was a new determination to delegitimate the whole notion of “net zero”; and there was support for a fair-shares approach to the overall U.S. pledge, one that framed domestic action as only the first branch of a two-fold effort that also includes significant levels of public financial and technological support for increased climate action in poorer countries.

If the global average reduction has to be 50 percent by 2030, then the United States, like other rich countries, should obviously do more, and as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, mainline climate groups stuck to 50 percent and were quick to argue that, if these reductions were real—if, in practice, “net zero” came to mean “real zero” rather than “crap zero”—they would be far more substantial than the more uncompromising activists on their left were willing to admit. This seems a fair point, but it should also be said that Biden’s “Jobs” and “Family” plans are not strong enough to achieve the 50 percent by 2030 target. As writer and critic Adam Tooze convincingly argues, these plans are actually quite modest when compared to the administration’s stated goals, and to actually achieve them the “administration needs to change the direction of energy policy radically, from Obama’s ‘all of the above’ to a systematic exit from fossil fuels.”

Still, 50 percent isn’t enough. The 70 percent domestic emission cuts that USCAN proposes is closer to the mark. And, as the Carbon Tracker group argues, “the technical and economic barriers have been crossed and the only impediment to change is political.” This is true, and it’s important to be clear about the scale and nature of those impediments, because once you’re talking 70 percent cuts by 2030, there can no longer be any pretense about the adequacy of business-as-usual strategies. Reduction targets on this scale imply a war mobilization, or something like it, and it is disingenuous, or worse, to pretend otherwise.

The second point has to be offsets. The global push for all countries to take the same net zero 2050 target is virtually guaranteed to lead to an explosion of phony offsets and other kinds of illusory “negative emissions,” this for the rather obvious reason that many countries will not be able to achieve their 2050 pledges without significant outside help. And this means pretense, which in turn means accounting tricks, overblown estimates of the potential for “natural solutions,” and of course hand waving about carbon-removal technology that doesn’t yet exist—and may never exist—at the necessary price and scale. As the authors of one excellent new overview of the net zero danger write, “The problems come when it is assumed that these can be deployed at vast scale. This effectively serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction.”

The third point—global climate justice—is the big one. I will introduce it by asking a question: What if, despite all, the net zero 2050 strategy is actually justified? What if it offers a precious way forward that cannot reasonably be refused? What if this is true even if it threatens—as Meena Ramen of the Third World Network argues—to undermine the equity principles at the heart of the U.N.’s 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change by “blurring the differentiation between developed and developing countries”? What if this blurring is, as China’s rise seems to argue, inevitable?

What if, all things considered, net zero 2050 is the right gambit at the right time? After all, the North-South differentiation isn’t the only justice challenge. This is a world of emergency, a world of nations awash in the wreckage of neoliberalism, some of them rich and some poor, most of them riven by stratified rich and poor castes, many of them struggling with authoritarian and even fascist movements. What if, against this dark background, a universal push for national net zero 2050 targets is feasible enough and simple enough to be very widely understood and embraced, and the real question—the politically critical question—is how to pursue it in an equitable manner, which is in any case the only way it could possibly work?

The Global Climate Justice Challenge

Biden’s Climate Summit was, as per Sunrise’s Evan Weber, “historic, unprecedented, and nowhere near enough.” It took real steps forward, and these should be celebrated, but it’s already shrinking in the rear view mirror. On the domestic side, infrastructure, jobs, and care economy battles (the Green New Deal by another name) are queued up and, globally, the agenda is equally jammed, as the world’s climate diplomats try to make the next Conference of Parties (November in Glasgow) into a major turning point. Which is going to take a major effort, because we’re not only talking about “mitigating” greenhouse gas emissions. We’re also talking about “adapting” to impacts that can no longer be avoided, and about the suffering and destruction that lies beyond the limits of adaptation, which is now officially known by the anodyne name of “loss and damage.”

There are two essential points to make about the Summit and its outcomes. The first is that the announcements at the Summit reduced the “emissions gap” by a mere 12-14 percent—this is the gap between the global total of nationally pledged reductions and the reductions necessary to hold the 1.5°C line. The second is that even honest realists judge the Summit, from the climate finance perspective, to be a failure, which is to say yet another failure in a very long and dismal chain. This is a point where strategic distinctions become essential. The question is if, in the coming flurry of negotiations, earnest talk can actually open into serious efforts to end fossil subsidies and export credit finance for oil and gas across the OECD. Such efforts would not be enough—don’t get me wrong—but they could, if approached honestly, be very big deals indeed.

With finance taking center stage, it’s important to stipulate that finance isn’t everything, for as Andrew Marquard, an energy expert at the University of Cape Town recently told me, “financial costs are not usually the main barriers to climate action.” That said, money still matters a great deal, not least because the blocking coalitions that prevent meaningful climate action do so by mobilizing power, and this being a kind of capitalism, money is power. Ergo, transformational change requires the movement of transformational amounts of money.

This is also true domestically, as is now evidenced in the Green New Deal Network’s THRIVE agenda, now embodied in the THRIVE Act. It’s a lovely piece of work, justice forward and politically expansive and much more properly scaled than Biden’s Jobs and Families plans. Moreover, it’s gotten past the dream stage, and has been introduced in Congress (50 co-sponsors and counting). It carries a price tag of $10 trillion to be spent over the decade, which its authors view as a “down payment” on the Green New Deal. Alas, it lays out an entirely domestic agenda, which is simply not going to be enough.

This is an old problem. Here’s Alden Meyer, a U.S. climate movement elder by any definition:

“We’re talking a lot of money here, and the U.S. political system has not come to grips with that, to be frank, and I would put some of the blame for that on NGOs in the U.S. We have not mounted the same kind of campaign around ramping up international climate finance that we have on domestic ambition, on sectoral emissions reduction and transportation, electricity, on domestic impacts and just transition and environmental justice. . . It’s easy for a member of Congress to see the benefits of doing something domestically that cleans up local air pollution or creates jobs or develops clean technology manufacturing in their district or state. It’s harder to communicate the benefits of ramping up international climate finance in those domestic political terms.”

What’s at stake here is international solidarity as the necessary foundation of any potentially successful planetary climate mobilization. Everybody knows, and has always known, that the first-round of Paris pledges, the ones made back in 2015, were radically inadequate. The question is whether those pledges, too, are fated to fade into the long history of climate failure, or if they are to be achieved, and strengthened, and achieved again, such that Paris is eventually seen as a hard-won turning point rather than just another false promise.

Which brings us, finally, to fair shares. Because, while everything depends on climate ambition and while justice is one of its essential drivers, the mainline climate movement has always been unwilling or unable to face the admittedly daunting implications of this fundamental structural truth. Fortunately, the world has changed, and if you squint, you can see that this, too, is changing along with it. 

The Fair-Shares Approach

The net zero 2050 strategy posits a mobilization in which each country pursues the same target. If it is pursued, the challenge will be making it fair. Is this possible? It had better be, for there is no promising climate stabilization pathway in which the U.S. effort and the effort of, say, India, are the same. The United States is after all immensely rich, and as it became rich it incurred responsibilities as well. To do its fair share in in a planetary crisis, it must act boldly and intelligently at home, but it must also do the same internationally.

But how much should it do, exactly? What, precisely, would the US pledge if it was actually setting out to do its fair share, relative to the demands of the 1.5°C global temperature goal, and in the light of its outsized national wealth and responsibility?

This is a big question, and I’ll skip the details of the answer by pointing to the US Climate Action Network (USCAN), which last year, after a long process of internal consultation moved to officially support a fair-shares position based on the Climate Equity Reference Framework, which is in turn based on the U.N.’s keystone equity principles of national capacity and historical responsibility. After agreeing that the U.S. fair share would be defined in a manner that exempted the limited resources of America’s poor from consideration, this consultation yielded a U.S. fair-shares target of 195 percent below 2005 emissions levels.

USCAN, as noted, 70 percent as its domestic reduction target. The remaining international effort was then calculated by simple subtraction, and it comes to 125 percent. This corresponds to about 53 gigatonnes (billion metric tons) of “carbon dioxide equivalent” emissions between 2021 and 2030, which pencils out to an annual mitigation goal that rises to 9 gigatonnes of reductions in 2030, which the United States could accomplish by cooperatively supporting poorer countries (for example via technology transfer or granting money to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund) as they too seek to maximize their decarbonization efforts.

Then, just before Biden’s Summit, a coalition of U.S. activists and researchers built upon the U.S. fair-shares position to release the US Fair Shares NDC, which extends the USCAN position in important ways, including by arguing that, in finance terms, the international side of the U.S. fair share (the 125 percent) could be estimated as being at least $800 billion for the decade between 2021-2030, which should be equally split among mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage ($267 billion each). It also suggests that the United States use these funds to lobby other wealthy countries to reply in kind, thus establishing a virtuous cycle within which short-term ambition can be radically increased and a true, long-term, fair-shares climate accord can be negotiated, one that might actually stabilize the planet’s climate.

This may seem to be a large sum of money, but it’s not a lot compared to the true damage costs of fossil-fuel emissions, as estimated for example by the so-called social cost of carbon. Honest estimates of this social cost yield truly astonishing numbers in the trillions of dollars, which is incidentally why the International Monetary Fund has estimated that the fossil-fuel industry receives annual subsides of about $5.2 trillion.

The World as We Find It

One of the goals of the fair-shares approach is to expand the so-called Overton window, the range of policies acceptable to the mainstream, by asserting a new kind of realism that focuses on the action that’s necessary rather than just the action that’s seen to be immediately achievable. This is why the US Fair Shares NDC insists that even an extremely ambitious domestic effort aimed at reducing U.S. emissions by 70 percent by 2030 would be entirely inadequate, both in justice terms and with respect to the 1.5°C goal, if it were delivered without significant amounts of additional support for ambitious action in poorer countries.

The fair shares approach very clearly implies the need for a major breakthrough on international climate finance, which will be quite impossible to achieve without the United States. John Kerry, speaking at the Summit, made his own version of this same point, which he also asserted as a call for a new realism. He did so by noting that the U.N. estimates an ongoing global climate finance gap of over a trillion dollars a year, adding that “there is no way that any one government anywhere, or even a group of governments, is going to put that kind of funding to the task.” He argued that private investment, together with a variety of international multilateral reforms, could nonetheless close the gap.

What do our leaders have in mind? Kerry called for strong new kinds of climate investment risk disclosure, the end of fossil subsidies, green bonds, development bank reform, and a global carbon price. At the Summit, Jamaica’s prime minister very clearly asserted that without “an accessible and equitable finance system” there was no chance of a major climate mobilization, and this was clearly the Summit’s shared rhetorical baseline. The IMF spoke for a system of global carbon prices with “floors” that varied between countries at different levels of development. The president of Congo suggested a system of payments for foregone forest clearance opportunities, as did Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, though at this point  his support for the idea probably does more to delegitimate it than to promote it. . There were numerous declarations of support for climate debt swaps—which is no surprise given the absolutely crushing severity of the debt crisis—and everyone seems to want an end to coal export financing and a real effort to push through substantive action on fossil subsidy reform. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden gave a particularly effective call for cutting today’s “astronomical” fossil subsidies, which she pegged, conservatively, at about $500 billion a year.

At a deeper level, the neoliberal economy poses substantive challenges to global climate mobilization, and after the debacles of international PPE and vaccine distribution, these are no longer difficult to understand. Once-fringe ideas like directing IMF “special drawing rights” to fund climate mobilization in the developing world have become, if not mainstream, at least familiar. Further, it is no longer possible to talk seriously about international climate finance without noting the grotesque size of the global military enterprise—during the pandemic, global military expenditure hit nearly $2 trillion a year. Brandon Wu, the director of policy and campaigns at Action Aid USA and a strong supporter of the fair-shares approach, likes to note that the $800 billion the US Fair Shares NDC calls for, as America’s contribution to the global climate effort over the entire 2021 to 2030 decade, is approximately equivalent to a single year of the U.S. military budget.

Emergency Internationalism

If we are to stabilize the climate system, we will need a global Green New Deal. As Kate Aronoff has shown in her indispensable new book, Overheated, the agenda defined by this imperative will be sprawling indeed. All I’m really adding is the argument that the fair-shares approach has a critical role to play in any serious international climate mobilization, and thus in any possible global Green New Deal.

The fair-shares approach is fundamentally internationalist. It insists that no nation can save its own climate system for the simple reason that no nation has its own climate system, and that national climate actions must therefore be judged not only in their own terms but also by the reciprocal actions they provoke. This was already a key insight back in the old world—before climate denialism collapsed into authoritarian nihilism, and before the pandemic taught us to understand the reality of truly planetary dangers. It’s even more essential today, as we prepare for what will certainly be a strange new world.

The net zero 2050 strategy is not the decisive thing here. But it is a key thing, and we appear to be committed to it, so we had best make sure it succeeds. Barring some “negative emissions” miracle, we’re going to have to drive real emissions down to near zero in almost all countries if we’re to achieve anything like global net zero 2050. But this does not mean that poor and vulnerable countries can be left to fend for themselves. If this is how net zero 2050 plays out, it will be a disaster.

We don’t have much time. There is no chance without solidarity, internationally and here at home. I do not know how the effort to build such solidarity will develop as it presses against the right’s strategy of xenophobia and authoritarian nationalism, but I suspect that we’ll get more clues as the Covid  pandemic moves into its next chapters. It’s only fair to note that, as the pandemic grinds on, the argument for pessimism has only gotten a boost. The mobilization has not been an international confidence-builder.

We need a Green New Deal. But we also need a new internationalism, an emergency internationalism, and a solidarity than includes distant strangers as well as strangers within our own borders. Without it, we haven’t got a chance.