Biden, Boris and Beijing: The changing politics of climate action
"humankind should launch a green revolution and move faster to create a green way of development and life, preserve the environment and make Mother Earth a better place for all" - Xi Jinping
Biden has won, Boris announces his plans and Beijing demonstrates even the largest emitter can aim for change: the future looks bright. The question is, what pledges have these global superpowers made, what do they mean for the future political landscape and how much change can they actually make?
Good news for the planet
Many in the international community frothed at the mouth with anger when Ex-President Donald Trump announced his plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, a foundational piece of legislation in the battle against Global Warming, so his impending departure has created joy in the ranks of those fighting on the side the planet.
President Elect Biden has announced his plans for a 'Green New Deal' and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has publicly outlined his 10-step plan towards a greener future. China has also joined the revolution towards a sustainable future, but what are these plans for the world of tomorrow?
The UK's Plan:
The UK was the first major economy to make a 2050 net-zero pledge and after some consideration the PM has outlined his plan for the UK's eco-friendly future. Writing an article for the Financial Times, Boris Johnson laid out the 10 steps that his government will take to make sure the UK is Carbon neutral within 30 years.
According to him, this plan will see £12bn of government investment and “potentially 3 times as much from the private sector”. Creating 250,000 'green jobs' along the way, number 10's plan will:
Make the UK “the Saudi Arabia of wind” - creating enough offshore capacity to power every home by 2030
See up to £500m investment in hydrogen
Create more nuclear power, both large and small scale
Invest more than £2.8bn in electric vehicles - end sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans in 2030 (allowing hybrid until 2035)
Make cleaner public transport - thousands of ‘green buses’ and more cycle lanes
Invest in the development of zero emission plane and ships
Invest £1bn next year to make homes, schools and hospitals “greener” and their energy bills lower
See £1bn invested into carbon capture and storage
Plant 30,000 hectares of trees by 2025 and re-wild "30,000 football pitches worth of countryside”
Create a £1bn energy innovation fund help new tech and make London “global centre for green finance”
The US' Plan:
Outlined on his website, Jo Biden puts forward his agenda for the Green New Deal. The next US President states his plan will:
Ensure net-zero no later than 2050
"Build a stronger, more resilient nation"
Rally the rest of the world to face this threat
Stand up to those who abuse their power, especially against "communities of colour and low-income communities"
"Fulfill our obligation to workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution and subsequent decades of economic growth"
Alongside these goals, it also states the Biden Presidency will take no money from "oil, gas and coal corporations or executives”, which if true would be a dramatic shift in the world of American political funding.
The Chinese Plan:
China's plan came from President Xi Jinping on the 22nd of September at the 2020 UN General Assembly meeting. He announced “China will scale up its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions by adopting more vigorous policies and measures. We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”.
Currently the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, China's pledge to become carbon neutral is a huge step in the right direction. President Jinping's UN address calls on all countries to act and "seize this opportunity", but despite his dramatic calls to action, within the speech he did not outline an actual guide towards this future.
How affective will these policies be?
The economies of scale now available means renewable energy is at its most affordable ever, with wind and solar becoming viable options for widespread distribution around the world. But to hit global targets, investment in these already existing technologies will have to increase, some say up to four-fold.
If successful, there are those who predict China's plan alone would lower global warming projections by 0.2-0.3 degrees Celsius, which would be a huge step for hitting global temperature targets of no more than a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase. There is belief among a section of commentators that if China, the US and the EU, who have affirmed their own commitments, were to hit their targets, then the 1.5 target is within reach.
However, there are those who think these milestones are too far down the road and by then the damage will be irreversible. Viable concerns over actual policy meaning have also been a key part of the debate for years. Net-zero does not mean completely getting rid of all pollution, it simply means balancing what we emit with what we collect, through technology like carbon capture. There are fears surrounding this tech and also concerns that reliance on this, and not a focus on enforcing actual change within the energy industry, means big energy will be able to keep polluting to their hearts' content.
Therefore it would seem that on the optimists' side, our targets of a net-zero world is within reach by half way through this century, with the world's super-powers leading the charge. But there is real concern over the targeted pace at which these changes will take place and there are trajectories that think these targets are not enough to curve the effects of global warming.
What does this mean for politics?
Whilst these nations committing to a net-zero future is a strong message for international action and a hopeful sign for the Earth, we cannot ignore the self-serving aspects of their agendas. Just because there is a shift towards greener energy politics, doesn't mean it'll be all bonfires and Kumbaya.
The US' commitments will benefit everyone, but Biden clearly still has #1 in mind; this plan of his would "lead America to become the world’s clean energy superpower". Since their rise to global hegemony following the fall of the USSR, many scholars believe the US has been obsessed with maintaining their position at the top of the international food chain. The main perceived threat to their place in the world throughout the 21st century has been the rise of China, the nation many within the American political establishment see as their main rival for the alpha title. Therefore, under this school of thought, much global US policy revolves around one key tenant: staying ahead of the Chinese competition.
Of course, Biden's energy manifesto came out during a Presidential run, so his stance has to reflect how it will help American people, as they are the ones who decide his Presidential fate. Now he has won office we will need to wait and see how committed he is to hitting his targets and whether or not America will remain the Top Dog in a carbon-zero future. Many believed if Trump won another term, the fight against global warming would be all but over, so whatever his intentions are Biden's victory is undoubtedly the better of two options when it comes to tackling the crisis.
Whilst China themselves preach multilateralism when facing global threats and do not advertise as an aggressor, there are those within the international system that see their actions as exactly that: aggressive. China's position within Hong Kong (read more about this here and here), their agendas in the South China Sea and their infamous 'Belt and Road' initiative have all created doubts surrounding just how benign they are as a global power.
The Chinese economy is structured very differently to that of the US and has much larger manufacturing capabilities, being able to export larger quantities at a cheaper price. Due to this, if they manage to develop energy technology that the rest of the world want, they could fill markets much more efficiently than the Americans. Therefore, US policy makers might want to get a jump on not only developing the tech, but securing the necessary connections to export them once they're ready.
Similar to the tone of the US pledge, there is clear emphasis on a 'made in Britain' approach in the Boris' vision. Most production jobs have been moved abroad (to places like China) throughout the last century, but the UK's new plan involves Britain taking the manufacturing lead once again. I can't help but hear some romanticisation of the days gone by of steel mills, coal mines and fabric factories.
The UK's economy has been heavily reliant on the service sector throughout the 21st century, but with Brexit creating uncertainty around the future of the UK economy, maybe a reverse to a heavier emphasis on production is on the cards. Although it's likely financial services, currently one of the UK's most profitable markets, will remain a prominent part of the UK's GDP (Gross Domestic Product = national income), the pandemic and Brexit have seen many becoming unemployed throughout the nation and the creation of a new Secondary Sector (goods production) market could create new job opportunities.
How realistic this is is unclear. The UK has some of the world's top researchers and seems to have a government ready to invest in them, but when it comes down to it, the likelihood is most Brits will likely be driving around in their electric Hyundais, rather than zero emission Minis. Like the US, the UK will struggle to keep up with the production output of nations whose economies are more focused on production. However, the now 'independent' UK is keen to demonstrate the loss of European legislative shackles as a sign of strength. The race towards Green technology will be the first major proving ground for the UK and a test of its position within international hierarchy.
There's no doubt about it: the UK, US, EU, Chinese and myriad of other net-zero pledges are a good thing. However, their effectiveness is wholly up for debate and although this is a shift for the good of all, let us not pretend there are no ulterior motives at play.
I hope the optimists are right and that these commitments are enough. Without drastic action, an international pissing contest will be meaningless, as there will be no future for this planet or any of its inhabitants. Let us hope those who need to make changes know this is the case