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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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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Class Footprints in the new Emissions Gap Report

The focus of the 2020 Emissions Gap report is, of course, the emissions gap, which, alas, the pandemic will do little to close. But this year’s edition of this indispensable series also contains a surprise: Chapter 6: Bridging the Gap – the role of equitable low-carbon lifestyles.

The gap itself has been well reported, so I’ll not review it. The crucial numbers are that total emissions reached 59.1 GtCO2e in 2019, leaving us with a gap of 15 GtCO2e to close by 2030, if we would have a 66% chance of achieving the 2°C temperature goal, or 32 GtCO2e if we’re still dreaming about 1.5°C (with the same 66% probability).  Today’s pledges (formally, NDCs) are absolutely not on the necessary scale.

“countries must collectively increase their NDC ambitions threefold to get on track to a 2°C goal and more than five-fold to get on track to the 1.5°C goal.”

Furthermore, most of the pandemic stimulus has thus far been wasted. Globally, Covid related government fiscal spending has to this point amounted to about $12 trillion, a huge percentage of 2020’s global GDP. Unfortunately, a lot of this money has gone into high fossil sectors. The details are more than dispiriting, for they show that many countries have used the pandemic emergency to deepen their support for fossil energy. According to Energy Policy Tracker, the world’s largest countries, grouped into the G20, had (as of December 9th) directed more than $240 billion in stimulus funds to support high-carbon activities and fossil energy, while $157 billion had gone to renewables and low-carbon activities. The US, a particularly egregious fossil funder, had directed over $70 billion to high-carbon activities.

The surprise, and a good reason to go beyond the executive summaries and actually read the GAP Report, is Chapter 6, which focuses on “lifestyle emissions” or, as I prefer, “class footprints.” The first part of this chapter ably summarizes the latest research. The second part is also worth a good look, in part because it offers a master class in just how bland and bloodless analytic prose can get, even when it’s taking on politically fraught matters of absolutely existential significance – like the burden of the rich and their consumption.

Anyway, here’s the takeaway, in a nutshell:

“Around half the consumption emissions of the global top 10 per cent and 1 per cent are associated with citizens of high-income countries, and most of the other half with citizens in middle-income countries (Chancel and Piketty 2015; Oxfam and SEI 2020). One study estimates that the ‘super-rich’ top 0.1 per cent of earners have per capita emissions of around 217 tCO2 – several hundred times greater than the average of the poorest half of the global population.”

The two citations here are essential reading. The Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty paper, Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris, is I suppose a classic, because it came out before Paris. (I reviewed it here). The Oxfam and Stockholm Environment Institute paper, The Carbon Inequality Era: An Assessment of the Global Distribution of Consumption Emissions Among Individuals from 1990 to 2015 and Beyond, is the hot new item, and it deserves far more attention than it has received.

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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

 

It’s Time for the US to Carry Its Fair Share on Climate Change

This essay was first published in Sierra Magazine

The term “climate injustice” is easy to understand. When the poor and vulnerable people of New Orleans or Nicaragua are abandoned to the ravages of a climate-fueled hurricane, we know something hideous has occurred. But climate justice is not just the absence of climate injustice. It also demands the presence of real and meaningful fairness, and an extremely ambitious climate mobilization that takes this fairness just as seriously as decarbonization itself. No mobilization that tries to skip this step can possibly succeed.

Check the science and you’ll see how very late it is. Stabilizing the climate would be extraordinarily difficult under the best of circumstances, which these are decidedly not. Add the imperative of mobilizing in a fair way and the challenge can seem overwhelming. Why is fairness so decisive? The simple answer is cooperation. Absent an overall sense of fairness, justice, and equity—and the cooperation required to achieve those ideals—we haven’t got a chance of avoiding climate chaos. Bringing down greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep global temperatures (more or less) in check is going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. We can only do it together.

But how to achieve a sense of fairness in a world where many people are appallingly poor and some are astonishingly rich? Where all nations are divided? Where some have vastly overdrawn their proper share of the planetary carbon budget, while others have done almost nothing to cause the climate crisis? This, in a nutshell, is the fair shares problem, as we find it on the climate front. Even if the United States honestly reduces its emissions to net zero in 2050, it will not have done its fair share of the planetary effort.

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The Coronavirus Economic Crash

I don’t often recommend articles from Jacobin, but this is spot on as far as I can tell. 

The ending . . .

“Governments are out of monetary fire power. If they respond at all, it must be with fiscal policy. Co-ordinated stimulus programs from the world’s major economies might be enough to prevent a significant downturn — and borrowing is now cheaper than ever. Given that the virus will have a greater impact on poorer countries and more vulnerable individuals, the response must be targeted at protecting the least well-off. And given that the climate crisis represents a far greater long-term threat to humanity than coronavirus, it should also promote decarbonization.

In other words, now is the perfect time for the Green New Deal. It remains to be seen whether governments led by Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel will seize the opportunity.”

Fair Shares in the Climate President Action Plan

Over 500 US groups have signed onto a comprehensive common ask: The #CLIMATEPRESIDENT Action Plan: Ten actions that the new administration (assuming of course that there is one) should take in its first ten days.

It’s a great list, and of particular interest to us because fair shares has finally made the cut. It’s last, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with being the bottom line. The short version is: “Rejoin the Paris Agreement and lead with science-based commitments that ensure that the United States, as the world’s largest cumulative historical emitter, contributes its fair share and advances climate justice.”

The text of all ten demands is worth reading in full. Here’s the text for number ten:

“Vastly increase the United States’ emissions reduction commitment (Nationally Determined Contribution) to slash U.S. greenhouse emissions below 2005 levels by at least 70% by 2030 and reduce them to near zero by 2040 — in line with what science, equity, and climate justice demand. Include deadlines to halt all oil, gas, and coal production in the U.S. commitment and ensure that future agreements set limits on fossil fuel production consistent with meeting the 1.5°C target.

The actions in this report will form the backbone of the plan to achieve this commitment. However, because these domestic reductions alone are insufficient to fulfill the U.S. fair share of global climate action, the President must leverage their full executive authority and work with Congress to appropriate funds for large-scale financial and technological support to enable poorer countries to reduce their own emissions, as well as to support crucial adaptation measures so that vulnerable communities can survive the climate disruption already underway.”

Op-Ed: The realism of Bernie Sanders’ climate policy

It’s been a while now since the Sanders’ campaign released its Green New Deal plan, which included a significant step towards fair-share internationalism, of just the kind that this site stands for.

Now, Naomi Klein (who needs no introduction) and Sivan Kartha (who co-directs the Climate Equity Reference Project) have a follow-up op-ed in the Boston Globe, with the very precise title of The realism of Bernie Sanders’ climate policy. If you’re following the fair shares debate, you should take a look at it, for it’s admirably covers both the global and the domestic sides of the challenge in one tidy text.

On the domestic side:

“More than a decade of so-called market-based climate policies have expected workers and consumers to foot most of the bill for climate action. The result is often fierce backlash: In Chile, an increase in public transit fees sparked the recent uprising, and in France, an increase in fuel costs did the same. As in Iowa, it’s not that people are opposed to climate action. They are simply so overburdened by stagnant wages, job losses, and cutbacks to social services that they can’t accept getting stuck with the bill for the climate crisis. “

On the international:

“Accordingly, the plan puts a game-changing sum on the table: a $200 billion contribution to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, which supports projects across the global South to reduce emissions and cope with climate impacts. (The Obama administration pledged a mere $3 billion, delivering only one-third before payments were scrapped by Trump.)

The Sanders campaign also recognizes that, in some cases, no amount of money can keep people on parched or flooded land. And so, on the campaign trail, the senator’s newly released immigration platform includes, among other measures, a call to accept at least 50,000 global climate refugees during his first year as president.”

Climate Change is not World War

I am no fan of Roy Scranton’s 2015 book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (which sported the fashionably dark subtitle “Reflections on the End of Civilization.”) But, as Bob Dylan says, Things have Changed. At least a bit. Scranton’s still doggedly dark, but these days his lessons are more useful. 

In mid-September, just before Climate Week in Manhattan’s UN districts, he published an excellent piece in the Times under the title Climate Change is not World War. It should be required reading, especially by those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of incanting the phrase “World War Style Mobilization” when talking about what a true climate mobilization would be like. As if it would somehow be win / win all the way down the line:

Here’s a sample:

“[M]uch of this rhetoric involves little or no understanding of what national mobilization actually meant for Americans living through World War II. As a result, the sacrifices and struggles of the 1940s have begun to seem like a romantic story of collective heroism, when they were in fact a time of rage, fear, grief and social disorder. Countless Americans experienced firsthand the terror and excitement of mortal violence, and nearly everyone saw himself caught up in an existential struggle for the future of the planet.”

Here’s another

“[M]obilization during World War II was a national mobilization against foreign enemies, while what’s required today is a global mobilization against an international economic system: carbon-fueled capitalism. It took President Franklin D. Roosevelt years of political groundwork and a foreign attack to get the United States into World War II. What kind of work over how many years would it take to unify and mobilize the entire industrialized world — against itself?”

Here’s a third:

“Finally, national climate mobilization would have cascading unforeseen consequences, perhaps even contradicting its original goals, just like America’s total mobilization during World War II. Looking at the myriad ways that World War II changed America, for better and worse, suggests that it’s difficult to know in advance the ramifications of such a sweeping agenda. “

There’s more, and not saying I agree with all of it. In particular, I think  anything like a true climate mobilization would have to be accompanied by a profound turn towards economic justice, which I’m betting Mr. Scranton would consider naive. But if we want to be tough minded about the realities we’re now facing, and it seems we do, there are insights here that have to be reckoned with. 

This is not going to be easy.