Climate truly back on the agenda
Small states might benefit from the rivalry of large states for 21st century dominanceSunday, May 02, 2021
US President Joseph Biden's address to a joint session of the US Congress on April 28 was strikingly different from the speeches of his predecessor, Donald Trump. The address was free of the bombast and repeated references to the exceptional qualities that Trump ascribed to himself, including the frequent claim that he had either done more than any other president or that he had more knowledge of everything than anyone else.
Biden succeeded in presenting an image of 'father of the nation'. He was calm in his presentation, measured in his remarks, and open-handed to his political opponents, many of whom were seated in the hall. Unlike Trump, while he was firm that the US would act to prevent excesses by China and Russia, he did not adopt a tone of belligerence to these two top rivals for global political, economic, and military dominance.
Equally impressive was President Biden's participation in the 'Summit of 40 Leaders on Climate' that he organised on April 22 and 23. Except for one brief period, when he personally excused himself to all the delegates present, he sat through every session, participating actively far beyond any expectation. If his deep involvement in the discussions is a measure of the seriousness of his stated desire to tackle climate change robustly, then the world might yet be at what he calls “a great inflection point in history”. He offers hope that greenhouse gas emissions can be dramatically reduced, global warming can be tempered, and sea-level rise can decline — all of which would be immensely beneficial to small states.
Of course, as Biden pointed out to Congress, the US accounts for “less than 15 per cent of carbon emissions”. He went on to state that, even if the US does “everything perfectly, it's not going to ultimately matter”, because “the rest of the world accounts for 85 per cent”. This latter statement is an oversimplification of the situation. Fifteen per cent of carbon emissions is a high figure for one country, and it needs to be reduced. So US emissions do ultimately matter.
At the same climate summit, Biden committed to reducing US emissions by 50 per cent to 52 per cent below its 2005 emissions levels by 2030. However, no concrete plans to achieve this has yet been revealed. These plans must be rolled out publicly, and soon, if the US is to be credible as a global leader on climate.
And, while it is statistically true that the rest of the world accounts for 85 per cent of the carbon emissions, it is misleading for it to be stated in this way. For instance, as Antigua and Barbuda's Prime Minister Gaston Browne pointed out at the summit, the 44 small-island and low-lying states of the world “collectively emit just 1.5 per cent of the emissions of industrialised nations”. The main contributors, apart from the US are China (28 per cent), India (7 per cent), Russia (5 per cent), and Japan (3 per cent). These five countries account for 58 per cent of global emissions. The remaining 42 per cent comes from 188 countries.
It was, therefore, important that Biden include the other big emitters in his climate summit to try to reach a consensus on the way forward. Whether such a consensus was achieved will be better measured in the coming months, leading to the global climate meeting, COP26, in Glasgow in November. But it should be clear that large carbon emissions in the five countries come from industrial production and lifestyles. It is cheaper for the offending countries to continue this pattern in order to be competitive in the global economic market. So, no one should hold their breath for dramatic change unless these countries are pushed.
Biden's policies look set to be the push factor. The president has tied reducing carbon emissions to a massive economic programme, providing jobs and massive new infrastructure in the US. His success in growing the US economy, increasing employment, and retaining the US competitiveness, is now tied to his climate programme.
He emphasised in his address to Congress that, “The most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis is 'jobs'.” Earlier, at the summit, he stressed that: “Within our climate response lies an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity ready to be fired up. That's why I've proposed a huge investment in American infrastructure and American innovation to tap the economic opportunity that climate change presents our workers and our communities, especially those who have been, too often, left out and left behind.”
This is the circumstance that, realistically, should give small states, that are the worst victims of the effects of climate change, the greatest reason for hope. President Biden contemplates spending US$2 trillion on his 'American Jobs Plan', creating tens of thousands of jobs, many of them linked to clean energy projects. It will not be easy. Accounting shows that 29 per cent of US emissions come from transportation, and a further 23 per cent comes from electricity generation. Americans are accustomed to driving cars for long distances and to air-conditioned homes, offices, and vehicles; they will have to be convinced of the benefits of changing from their traditional sources of energy.
But the political fortunes of President Biden's Administration are now tied to achieving this goal. Therefore, he and his team will work hard at accomplishing their objectives across all sectors of the society. At the same time, they will not yield their competitiveness to China or Russia, as the president told the US Congress. Consequently, the world should expect that the US Government will do everything within its power to push its rivals to cut their emissions.
In this regard, this may be one of the few cases in world history when small countries might truly benefit from the rivalries of large and rich nations. For this reason, President Biden's climate plan, tied to his American Jobs Plan, should be given every support by small states.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organization of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com.
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