This article is part of our special report US Election Special 2020: What to watch and why it matters.
With the American presidential election next week, the climate policy of Joe Biden and lack of policy from Donald Trump has come into the spotlight: America will have to adapt to green technologies to keep up with the world and the question is whether its administration will dig its heels in or not.
While COVID-19 has overshadowed the election, it has also been hailed as America’s climate election with young people involved in climate movements now old enough to vote and climate issues covered in debates like never before.
“We’re all in agreement that a Biden scenario will be smoother, but even under a Mr Trump scenario, climate action will still proceed,” said Peter Betts, associate fellow of energy, environment and resources programmes at Chatham House, a think-tank in London.
“A lot of this stuff is just happening anyway with renewable energy, electric vehicles and so on,” he added.
Behind the veil of Trump’s anti-climate rhetoric, America has been progressing, if slowly, towards greener technology. Coal production has declined more under his administration than it did under President Obama’s.
“Coal is on its way out at a rapid pace. The performance of the fracking industry is nowhere near as rock solid as you would imply,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School.
Solar capacity is increasing in America and it is second only to China in wind technology. With oil prices dropping again in the second wave of COVID-19 and Tesla’s share price rising, the market is shifting towards greener technology.
America has suffered increasing levels of climate change from vicious forest fires and increased flooding.
“The impacts of climate change are felt by every economic sector, so this is a live issue in every state and every district,” said Kyte.
But climate change is highly politicised in America.
“Just the mention of an energy transition in the last debate set off an absolute furore because you had the talking points for the Trump team and their news channels saying that was a major gaffe,” said Kyte.
Biden’s team was left scrambling to explain he was not going to stop the use of fossil fuel and defend his planned energy transition.
Biden has laid out a plan to use the federal government to create a just transition and build local jobs and resilience. It would involve increasing energy and building efficiency and supporting research and development and electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, Trump has used Biden’s plans for a green transition as a reason oil states like Texas should vote for him.
Biden has not yet given away what his planned target for net-zero emissions would be, but it is expected to be higher than America’s previous promise of a reduction of 26-28% by 2025 on a 2005 basis.
“With major powers in Asia – China, Japan, South Korea – coming out with net-zero targets in addition to the UK and EU, this is a discernible moment in the US: ‘Do we need to be in this race in order to win it, or will we run another race?’” said Kyte.
The Senate race will also impact how smoothly climate policy is introduced. At the moment, the House of Representatives is held by the Democrats while the Senate is controlled by Republicans, creating a stalemate, although the polls suggest that the Democrats will also win control of the Senate next week.
If Biden were to be elected without the support of the Senate, it would be a far rockier process to a green future, with Biden forced to pass executive orders for green reform, something Obama was criticised for.
It is much harder to predict what, if any, climate policy would be introduced under a second term of a Trump Administration.
“The United States has all the endowments it possibly could have to succeed in that clean energy race,” said Kyte. “Trump himself is perfectly capable of pivoting. This is somebody who could change his policy on a dime.”
Chatham House’s Betts said that although he thought “it’s a more benign scenario for progress on climate under Biden, I think it’s inevitable that this agenda will progress come what may. I think it will progress under Trump as well. This transformation, this change is inevitable.”
The global outlook
No nation followed America out of the Paris Agreement. Even Brazil, whose president Jair Bolsonaro, has often been referred to as the Trump of South America, has remained in the agreement.
Meanwhile, China has emerged as a leader on the global green stage, with increasing wind and geothermal technology.
In 2014, it announced climate policy bilaterally with America. In September, this year, China unilaterally announced a 2060 net-zero emissions target in a move many considered as appeasing Europe, rather than America.
Japan and South Korea followed China, saying in October that they would aim for net-zero emissions by 2050.
“I’m not quite sure we’re always right in assuming that a greener White House necessarily implies a greener world,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the UK’s House of Commons, adding that competition against America might actually drive other countries to be greener.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]