The US reclaims its seat at the climate table

By Hisham Mundol

Amid the convulsions in US politics, a ray of hope: One US politician’s implacable opposition to president Joe Biden’s flagship climate legislation suddenly dissolves. Why, is for others to dissect; what is to savour is the resurrection of Biden’s domestic programme, which on Sunday won the backing of US legislators. This is the US’s most ambitious effort ever to address climate change—it is good for India and the world, and it deserves to be lauded.

The proposed legislation provides a massive $370 billion spending programme to potentially deliver a 40% reduction in US emissions by 2030. It includes incentives for renewable energy access, tax credits for electric vehicles and imposing higher fees for methane emissions. It creates economic opportunities and enhances competitiveness, accelerating the energy-transition of the US economy. A new wave of green jobs is the hoped-for outcome, countering the gloomy prognoses of influential fossil fuel interests.

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At best, then, we could be entering a new age of sustainability, with structural changes that place clean energy, electric mobility, energy efficiency and sustainable agriculture at the heart of a refashioned US economy. This is a robust foundation and why even the delayed passage of the bill is such a positive augury.

Why is this important to India and the rest of the world? Because this vast budgetary allocation of incentives and policy tools is about squaring up to the immediate and longer-term threats of climate change, ensuring climate justice and calibrating climate geopolitics. It is also about the role of the US in the issue of our age.

Let’s start with the environment. The US currently accounts for 27% of global emissions. Climate change is caused not just by current but also cumulative emissions. At 400 billion tonnes since the start of the Industrial age (about two centuries ago) the US has pumped out a quarter of the world’s cumulative emissions. A 40% reduction in emissions from current levels— which is what this bill projects—is a bold marker of intent for the country, and a critical step forward for the planet.

What about climate justice? The US is the second-highest emitter in the world (after China) in absolute terms and among highest per capita emitter of any rich, industrialised country. US per capita emissions are 10 times higher than India’s. Until now, the lack of a clear plan backed by substantial investments by the US meant the world has never really had a chance to rein in runaway emissions. No amount of speechifying from the US could cover up the credibility gap when Washington sat down with other countries. This bill is therefore just the tonic for once sceptical countries and organisations to resume partnerships with the US.

Finally, the giddy geopolitics of climate. Under president Barack Obama, the US was central to the orchestration of the historic Paris agreement. His successor pulled the US out, Biden reversed the decision on the first day of his administration. Still, America’s standing had been tarnished. The world was left wondering about the (incalculable) cost of the absence of US climate leadership at home, and the potential of its influence beyond its borders.

The US withdrawal from Paris—demanded by domestic conservatives suspicious of globalisation and its agencies—additionally raised doubts about whether the US could be ever trusted as a reliable partner (thus Iran found itself in bizarre comity with most of Europe).

President Biden’s bill helps bring the US back on track; it should add renewed vigour to innovation and reduce user costs—perhaps even lead to softer US patent stewardship of frontier technologies. The fact is, it is when innovation reduces user costs and patent protections are eased that emerging economies really benefit.

At its root, this bill also illustrates American enlightened self-interest. US business innovation and technology have already taken the country to a critical tipping point on electric vehicles, renewables generation, battery technology and green jobs.

At the same time, the highest fuel prices in living memory are a daily reminder to middle America of the necessity of homegrown green technologies to safeguard against energy tyranny engineered by distant conflicts.

These real-life pressures will hopefully pull Americans away from the conspiracy theories that have convulsed their democracy, and instead point people and politicians towards real issues: the economy, jobs and, of course, climate.

It’s good to have you back at the table, America. Now, please spare us any more roller coasters.

The author is Chief advisor, EDF –India

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