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.”

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A model US “Fair Shares” Pledge

You remember the Paris Agreement, right? As a good thing, right?

There are two reasons why you should. The first is that Paris actually exists, and really could serve as a keystone of planetary climate mobilization. The second is that its “ambition mechanisms” (its “ambition ratchet”) are intended to strengthen the national pledges of action (official known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs) over and over again, as time goes by. Such that, when the history of the climate reckoning is finally written, the Paris ratchet will be a crucial part of the story. If it has worked, then all the Agreement’s shortcomings will be forgiven. If it hasn’t, we’ll have to admit, for whatever cold comfort it brings us, that the cynics in our ranks were right, and that Paris was just another false promise.

This isn’t a piece on the ambition ratchet, though I plan to write one. Rather, it’s a quick note to announce the “Fair Shares NDC” that was recently released by a rather ad-hoc coalition of people and groups from the U.S. climate left, for the explicit purpose of modeling the actions we believe the U.S. should actually be pledging, in this the pivotal first year of what promises to be a pivotal decade. We don’t claim the Fair Shares NDC is perfect—this is a work in progress—but we do claim that its asks, “unrealistic” or “utopian” though you may judge them to be, should not be casually set aside, not if we  intend to achieve the Paris temperature goals. Rather, at a minimum, take the Fair Shares NDC as a standard against which to measure the Biden Administration’s more official offering.

One key bit of context—the climate mobilization has now begun in earnest, and it wasn’t Paris that set the spark. Paris didn’t hurt, but if you look back for the single best marker, the one that most clearly illuminates the end of the denialist interregnum and the beginning of today’s struggle towards seriousness, you’d be better off choosing the IPCC’s special report on Global warming of 1.5°C, which somehow managed to shift the frame. You can see this in the shape of the current negotiations, in which countries around the world are being asked to announce commitments to reduce their emissions to “net zero” by 2050. This figure comes directly from the IPCC report, which told us, among much else, that we had best do our damnedest to hold the warming to 1.5°C, and that this means global reductions of about 50% by 2030. [i]

There’s a lot to say about these numbers, but the point here is only that they’ve gone viral, and mainstream, and indeed have taken on an almost normative air. You’re nobody, these days, if you haven’t made a net zero 2050 pledge. Which is not the problem. The problem is rather that 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, and yet the international pressure to achieve a universal push for unconditional national net zero 2050 pledges takes very little account of these defining facts. To the point where now, with 2030 pledges high on the agenda, even rich countries like the US can get away with adopting the global average figure—a 50% by 2030 reduction target—and expect it to be widely accepted as being, well, fair enough.

The problem is that the 50% number—which the IPCC asserted as a global 2030 reduction target—is not in any way a proper guide to national fair shares, nor will it ever be. There is no future in which the 2030 US fair share, and the 2030 fair share of, say, Sierra Leone, are going to be the same. Which brings us to the question at the heart of the Fair Shares NDC—what should the U.S. pledge in its new NDC? Or, more precisely, what would it pledge if it was actually proposing 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?

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Caution from India on taking a “net Zero” pledge

The Indian Express recently featured a joint editorial by three of my favorite Indian analysts, Ambuj Sagar, Lavanya Rajamani, and Navroz Dubash, in which the three, all influential in their own right, team up to deliver a common message — India needs to mobilize, but both it and the world may be better off if it concentrates on its existing development first agenda rather than jumping on the “net zero” bandwagon.

I don’t entirely agree with this take. I would have preferred a much stronger emphasis on the emergency, more consideration of the need for rapidly scaled up international support, and more emphasis on adaptation and loss & damage finance. But “the three” have good reasons for their take, which you can imagine pretty easily if you read between the lines, and in particular if you recall the grim nature of the Modi regime.

Over 50,000 people & 195 global groups demand Biden commit the U.S. to do its “fair share” on climate

February 17, 2021

The petition is the latest call for Biden administration to walk the walk on climate by taking responsibility for historical emissions

Washington — Just days before the reentry of the United States into the Paris Agreement becomes official, environmental groups delivered the signatures of more than 50,000 people in the U.S. The signatures are the latest escalation in a growing call demanding that the Biden Administration commit to doing its fair share of emissions cuts and honor owed support for Global South countries, including climate finance. The petition reflects analysis released in December from the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) that provides a path for the U.S. to take action that is in line with its responsibility for the climate crisis. 

The delivery follows a sign-on letter from over 100 U.S. climate groups including USCAN  which represents more than 175 US climate organizations, released for the 5-year anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement. The call has now been endorsed by a total of 195 organizations including the international Climate Action Network, which represents more than 1,500 organizations from over 130 countries. 

Earlier this month a similar coalition also demanded that the Biden administration commit $8 billion to the Green Climate Fund as well as further contributions to the Adaptation Fund. While the Biden transition team has yet to acknowledge the demand from this national coalition of people and organizations, incoming Climate Envoy John Kerry has spoken about the need for the US to do its fair share.

According to the analysis released by USCAN, for the U.S. to begin to do its fair share of the global action needed to help limit global warming to 1.5°C, it must reduce U.S. emissions 195% by 2030 (down from 2005 levels). To assemble this contribution, the analysis calls for U.S. domestic emissions reductions of 70% by 2030 combined with a further 125% reduction achieved by providing financial and technological support for emission reductions in Global South countries.

The Biden administration has enacted a flurry of climate executive orders and previously committed to a plan of net-zero by 2050. But announcements to achieve net zero have been met with criticism from climate groups and scientists for not being ambitious enough and relying on technologies and approaches that are unproven, dangerous, or not achievable at scale.  

The extremely large U.S. fair share contribution partly reflects U.S. emissions to date. Today’s global warming is driven by cumulative emissions (not annual emissions), and the U.S. has already historically emitted more than any other country. In fact, many analyses deem that the U.S. has far surpassed its fair share of the cumulative global carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5°C. The domestic reduction of 70% by 2030 recommended by USCAN roughly aligns with an extremely ambitious decarbonization via a prosperous economy-wide mobilization.

The fair share demand is one part of a larger framework prescribed by environmental groups called the Climate President Action Plan. The plan includes ten steps the administration can take to fulfill its promise to take bold steps on climate and rebuild trust abroad.  

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The US Climate Fair Share

The U.S. Climate Action Network has taken a position on the U.S. fair share, which is to say–the US Fair Share in a global emergency effort to stabilize the climate system at 1.5C.  This is a long story, but the position itself is short and sweet. To wit:

“USCAN believes that the US fair share of the global mitigation effort in 2030 is equivalent to a reduction of 195% below its 2005 emissions levels, reflecting a fair share range of 173-229%.”

This position was actually adopted some time ago, on July 17th 2020, when a long “alignment process” led by ActionAid USA, North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light, the Center for Biological Diversity and EcoEquity culminated in the adoption of this position during USCAN’s annual national meeting in 2020.

We’re now going public. The US Fair shares website is at https://usfairshare.org/, and it contains, among other things, a political and technical briefing, which is what you should read if you want the details of this position and its meaning. One point I want to stress is that we’re not saying we have the keys to the kingdom of global climate stabilization. Far from it. We’re just saying we have a critical missing piece, one that spotlights the logic of global climate justice, one that could help make the global climate mobilization fair enough to actually succeed.

There’s some nice early press. Notably, Bill McKibben featured the USCAN fair shares position in his New Yorker Climate Newsletter — in a piece he called The Climate Debt the U.S. Owes the World. I myself placed a longer and more detailed piece in Sierra Magazine called It’s Time for the US to Carry Its Fair Share on Climate Change. Bill’s piece is of course well written, but mine lays out more of the gory details.

And there’s more!  Hunter Cutting has an excellent tweet thread here.  There’s a very informative press release here.  A YouTube of the press briefing is available here.  And, finally, there’s a cool Video

 

Equity and Realism?

The New Climate Institute, a pillar of what I like to call “Euro-realist” climate policy, has just made a telling pivot. It did so by way of a recent paper entitled Fair contributions versus fastest possible reductions.

It’s an important marker of a changing debate. Ask anyone who carries the scars of the pre-Paris equity battles. Long story short: the view that nations will have to take on “fair” or “equitable” shares in the global climate mobilization has long been anathema to “realists” who believe, frankly, that it just ain’t gonna happen, and that calls for fair shares are thus obstacles to climate action.

The folks at the New Climate Institute have long been key proponents of this kind of realism, but, it seems, no more!  At least not in this paper, which takes a fair shares position and (the twist) marries it to what appears to be a very tidy and very useful bottom up analysis of national mitigation potential. 

It seems like a good marriage.  I wish the couple well.  Though I couldn’t stop myself from writing Niclas Höhne, one of the authors, and pointing out that the title uses the word “versus,” which clearly implies the old-school view that we’re dealing, fundamentally, with a tradeoff between equity and ambition.

That “versus” should be “and.”  We need both. That’s the whole point, and Höhne willingly granted it. I could almost hear him sigh.

On the key matter, the overall conception of fair shares, here’s how Höhne and Wachsmuth put it:

“To make the stringent global mitigation pathways possible, emissions in all countries have to be reduced as fast as possible. Whether a national emission pathway itself is in line with the responsibility and capability of that country becomes less relevant. It is now more a question of who pays for the transition, not where it is happening.”

This is the key. Without this there is nothing. 

Politically, matters are more complicated, and I’d contest some of the claims in this paper. For example, when speaking of “indicators describing common but differentiated responsibilities,” the only examples given are “emissions per capita” and “GDP per capita,” and this will not do. If you look back at the pre-Paris discussion paper released in 2013 by the international Climate Action Network’s Equity Working group, you’ll find a considerably more sophisticated discussion of equity indicators, one that very importantly takes the class divide (ahem, the rich / poor divide) into account, rather than just the divide between the “developed” and the “developing” countries. 

The real issue, though, is finance. It’s fine to say that the fair shares approach needs to be harmonized with an approach that maximizes decarbonization within all countries, so that we might actually achieve the Paris temperature goals. But unless and until there is a public finance breakthrough, this accelerated decarbonization just isn’t going to happen. 

The real question is if we can finally reboot the equity debate, such that it helps us make that breakthrough. The shift announced in this paper is definitely a step in the right direction. Hopefully, as both the Covid pandemic and Donald J. Trump fade into history, this is the road we’ll take. 

I sure hope so, because it’s the road that’s capable of supporting a true global emergency mobilization. 

The Pandemic Pivot

Earlier this year, the prolific and admirably lucid John Feffer, currently based at the Institute for Policy Studies, invited me to participate in an international conversation that he called The Pandemic Pivot.

I’m sorry to say that the project’s framing text is already dated, for it talked about the coming second wave. I’m writing this in late October of 2020, and any anyone reading it will know, we’re not embroiled in the third wave. That said, the overarching less is the same, “If the current pandemic is a test of the global emergency response system, the international community is flunking big time.”

Here’s some introductory text, which clearly explains the link between the Covid crisis, and my own work, which is focused on climate and inequality:

“But perhaps the most important takeaway from the COVID-19 experience so far has little to do with the virus per se.

The pandemic has already killed more than a million people, but it is not about to doom humanity to extinction. COVID-19’s mortality rate, at under 3 percent, is relatively low compared to previous pandemics (around 10 percent for SARS and nearly 35 percent for MERS). Like its deadlier cousins, this pandemic will eventually recede, sooner or later depending on government response.

Other threats to the planet, meanwhile, pose greater existential dangers.

At a mere 100 seconds to midnight, the Doomsday Clock of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now stands closer to the dreaded hour than at any point since its launch in 1947. As the quickening pace of this countdown suggests, the risk of nuclear war has not gone away while the threat of climate change has become ever more acute. If fire and water don’t get us, there’s always the possibility of another, more deadly pandemic incubating in a bat or a pangolin somewhere in the vanishing wild.

Despite these threats, the world has gone about its business as if a sword were not dangling perilously overhead. Then COVID-19 hit, and business ground to a halt.

The environmental economist Herman Daly once said that the world needed an optimal crisis “that’s big enough to get our attention but not big enough to disable our ability to respond,” notes climate activist Tom Athanasiou. That’s what COVID-19 has been: a wake-up call on a global scale, a reminder that humanity has to change its ways or go the way of the dinosaur.

Athanasiou is one of the 68 leading thinkers and activists featured in a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the Transnational Institute, and Focus on the Global South. Now available in electronic form from Seven Stories Press, The Pandemic Pivot lays out a bold program for how the international community can learn from the experience of the current pandemic to avoid the even more destructive cataclysms that loom on the horizon.”

The Pandemic Pivot is actually an engrossing read. Seriously. Check it out.

We’re not going back to normal

There was a great article in MIT Technology Review a few days ago that everyone should read, on how social distancing will remain a big part of our lives until “until either enough people have had Covid-19 to leave most immune (assuming immunity lasts for years, which we don’t know) or there’s a vaccine.”

We will adapt, of course. But like everything else in this caste society of ours, this adaptation will, all else being equal, concentrate the pain on the poor and the vulnerable. Here’s how the author, one Gideon Lichfield, put it:

“As usual, however, the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.

Moreover, unless there are strict rules on how someone’s risk for disease is assessed, governments or companies could choose any criteria—you’re high-risk if you earn less than $50,000 a year, are in a family of more than six people, and live in certain parts of the country, for example. That creates scope for algorithmic bias and hidden discrimination, as happened last year with an algorithm used by US health insurers that turned out to inadvertently favor white people.

The world has changed many times, and it is changing again. All of us will have to adapt to a new way of living, working, and forging relationships. But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.”

Equity in the Global Stocktake

Actually, the title of this report is Equity in the Global Stocktake and Independent Global Stocktake, the iGST being a loose but interesting collaborative of climate research institutes. We at the Climate Equity Reference Project are active in iGST equity debates, and wrote its initial scoping paper on the equity challenge.

Here’s the “blurb,” such as it is:

“In this paper, we’re looking at the scope of assessments in stocktaking as an issue of equity; some “quality” criteria for equity benchmarks and equity information in stocktaking; how the whole issue of climate finance and support could be dealt with from an equity point of view, what could be said about intranational equity; and what minimal (and other) standards of procedural equity should be guaranteed. “

This paper is fairly technical, but very much of interest, for the simple reason that equity is essential to any future climate regime in which anything like an “Ambition Mechanism” is actually functioning. Which is to say that the Paris Agreement’s much discussed ambition mechanism is still a dream.

A Key British Report: “Our Responsibility”

I met Laurie Laybourn-Langton late last year, and was immediately struck by his honesty. He had just released an earlier report, This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown, and while its conclusions were grim, he was perfectly up front about the fact that he and his co-authors had soft-pedaled them, if only just a bit.

Soft-pedaling is an understandable sin these days, and this despite the fact that the Extinction Rebellion folks have popularized signs that say “Tell the Truth.”  It’s a great slogan, one for the ages, but do note that the real prime directive, stated precisely, would be something like “tell the whole truth, and do so in a helpful manner.”  The problem is that, given the unforgiving nature of our predicament, the “whole truth” can only be helpful if it comes together with believable strategies and transition stories, and that’s quite a hurdle. We’re not there yet.

LLL’s new report, Our responsibility: A new model of international cooperation for the era of environmental breakdown, moves us a bit closer, and it’s required reading if you believe, as I do, that the fair shares approach to global climate mobilization is essential to any plausible international transition story. Moreover, Our responsibility is notable for more than just the good sense it shows in leveraging the Climate Equity Reference Project approach to fair shares. Its real virtue is the clarity of its larger context. Its real topic is the real challenge — international cooperation itself, in the context on the now threatening “environmental breakdown.”

Here’s the report’s summary para:

“Environmental breakdown is accelerating and poses an unprecedented threat to international cooperation. This challenge comes at a time when the multilateral order is fracturing. A new positive-sum model of international cooperation is needed, which should seek to realise a more sustainable, just and prepared world. This necessarily requires communities and countries to better recognise their cumulative contribution to environmental breakdown, and their current capability to act. Wealthy nations and communities not only contribute most to the stock of environmental breakdown, they preside over and benefit from an economic development model founded on unsustainable environmental impacts and global power imbalance.”

Like I said, required reading.