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Does the world need the USA to rediscover its climate change mojo?

By Andrew Adie
10 November 2020

By Andrew Adie

Donald Trump’s (yet to be confirmed) loss at the polls could be a big victory for the environment, or so goes one narrative. Among his more controversial decisions was the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris climate change agreement.

As the likelihood of a Biden victory has become more apparent, numerous world leaders have congratulated him but simultaneously called for his new administration to re-join the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed in Paris in 2016 to set global targets for greenhouse gas emissions.

The mood music from the Biden camp has so far been positive. He has already pledged to set a target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (the same as the UK’s groundbreaking pledge), and announced plans for a $1.7tn investment in a green recovery to ‘build back better’. 

All positive news but does it matter? Obviously one response to that question is ‘of course’ any commitment to cut carbon emissions has to be welcomed but does the world need the USA to re-discover its climate change mojo? 

As with many areas where the USA has retreated into semi-isolation, the world has not stopped turning during the Trump presidency.

While the USA may have withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement at a Federal level, you could argue that the USA as a country has taken significant steps forward and assumed a leadership position on many key areas in the fight to prevent climate change and cut emissions.

It is notable that this week the Taskforce for Climate Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) has been adopted by the UK Government as the standard that all listed companies should adopt by 2025, with the UK introducing mandatory TCFD reporting by 2025. The TCFD standard is largely a USA driven initiative, driven by Michael Bloomberg and Mark Carney and backed by the UN, which is rapidly becoming the de-facto standard for climate related financial reporting. 

The fact that it has emerged and prospered despite the climate-denying bent of President Trump is just one example of how the USA has continued to push an environmental agenda regardless of the views and policy of the Federal State. Many USA companies have also led the way in driving more sustainable business models, and initiatives such as B-Corp emanate from the USA and aim to create systemic change in the way that businesses operate and manage their environmental impact.

The UNFCCC has also continued to make progress and push for global action to curb climate change, despite the lack of USA membership and even in the face of Covid forcing a postponement of the COP26 Summit.

Just this week the UK has played host to the Green Horizons Summit, co-hosted by the Green Finance Institute, The City of London Corporation and the World Economic Forum, which has seen a wide range of new initiatives and environmental announcements unveiled, including the UK Government’s announcement of its first sovereign green bond. 

While global temperatures continue to rise, the climate change agenda is gathering further pace and widening to encompass bio-diversity, plastic reduction and the electrification of society, and much else beside.

So while the USA rejoining the UNFCCC maybe welcome does it really move the dial, given how much the private sector and society has stepped up to fill the gap? 

I think it does. While the world doesn’t need the leadership of the USA to step up its efforts to combat climate change it does need the USA to add its weight behind commitments to act.

The USA remains one of the world’s largest carbon polluters (behind China). If Joe Biden as President honored his pledge to reach net zero by 2050 and boost green investments it is estimated that US emissions would be reduced by around 75 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. This reduction is reported to be enough to avoid a temperature rise of about 0.1C by 2100.

That in itself is significant. However without the US government taking a leadership role it is too easy for the rest of the world to lose momentum. When the world’s largest economy commits to act to become carbon neutral it has a ripple effect that will galvanize others.

It’s like a major supermarket demanding higher standards of its supply chain. They don’t need that leadership to tell them what’s right but sometimes we all need direction to make it all happen.

So regardless of where you stand on the politics, Biden’s environmental pledges should be welcomed and we should all hope, cajole and implore the USA to take a leading place at the table at COP26 when it finally starts, a year late, in November 2021.