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What Biden faces if he wants to get the climate change effort back on track

2021 could be the year of action — if climate leaders can problem-solve strategically

The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo., on July 27, 2018. (J. David Ake/AP)

Just hours into his presidency, Joe Biden announced that the United States would rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change. This reverses his predecessor’s move in June 2017, which triggered the U.S. formal withdrawal on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the U.S. presidential election.

The Paris agreement survived the Trump administration, and President Biden has signaled an intent to lead global efforts on climate change. What happens now?

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First, the United States will have a lot of work to do to demonstrate a renewed commitment to global climate concerns — and that means getting its own house in order through domestic action. That may be somewhat easier now that Democrats secured a narrow majority in the Senate.

Second, looking ahead to November’s U.N. climate negotiations, one significant challenge will be to match long-term ambition with short- and medium-run action.

A number of countries — notably China, Japan and South Korea — recently came forward with ambitious long-term pledges to zero out their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or soon thereafter.

Decarbonization is a huge challenge

To avoid dangerous climate change, experts argue the global economy needs to fully decarbonize — that is, get to net-zero emissions — by around 2050.

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Until Biden’s election and China’s net-zero announcement, climate news had mostly been grim. Few countries were on track to meet commitments made under the Paris agreement. Global emissions continued to rise.

The pandemic shutdowns have resulted in declines in global emissions, but the economic dislocation and suffering are hardly grounds for celebration. What’s more, 2020’s annual emissions are expected to decline by no more than 7.5 percent. To decarbonize, annual emissions need to fall by that much or more every year for the next few decades.

Too many leaders; not enough followers

In a recent piece in Global Environmental Politics, we argued that the climate regime has too many leaders and not enough followers.

Getting to net-zero emissions will require a “participation cascade,” where countries that move first to reduce emissions are followed by countries responsible for a large percentage of climate pollution. To succeed, leaders need to have a better appreciation of barriers facing followers.

In our research, we identified different follower types: what we call “Enthusiasts,” “Pliables,” “Reluctants” and “Hard Nuts,” which offer different lessons for fostering climate cooperation.

Some countries value environmental protection and are able to implement aggressive climate policies. We call these countries Enthusiasts. They are likely to take the lead themselves or quickly join others. Think of Denmark.

Other countries have the will but not the ability to implement policy. They need help — in the form of technical and financial assistance. Developing countries like Ethiopia may fit this bill. We call them Pliables.

Some countries have capacity but not the will. Think of the United States during the Trump administration. We call them Reluctants.

Finally, there are countries with neither the will nor the capacity, so-called Hard Nuts. Here, think of a country like Saudi Arabia, which depends on oil revenue.

The Paris agreement survived the Trump administration. What happens now?

What could improve global cooperation?

Barring domestic political change (like Biden’s victory in the United States), the Reluctants and Hard Nuts are difficult to move. Trade sanctions might be an option in some cases, but they are a costly last resort.

Based on insights from approaches to collective action, we suggest three alternatives: (1) break up the problem (2) focus on the relevant and (3) emphasize benefits to followers. Here’s how that might work:

Break up the problem

Climate change looks hard to resolve when we look at the problem as a whole. Dividing the problem into sectors and issue areas such as electricity, transport and buildings makes the issue more manageable.

By focusing on solutions in specific sectors, differences between countries become less stark. A country that might be a Reluctant when you consider climate change as a whole might be more enthusiastic about addressing a specific piece of the problem such as shipping or aviation.

Focus on the relevant

Climate change looks hard if you think we have to get 190 nations on board, but only a handful of countries really matters when it comes to emissions. China and the United States alone are responsible for more than 40 percent of global emissions, and the top 20 emitters are responsible for nearly three-quarters of global emissions.

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In some sectors, such as steel, where China produces half of global output, emissions are even more concentrated. Focusing on specific countries and industries might help tailor strategies to get them on board.

Emphasize the broader benefits

The Reluctant and Hard Nut countries may not care that much about climate change, but appealing to issues that they do care about might make these governments more enthusiastic about climate protection.

India, for example, has a serious air pollution problem that is reducing life expectancy across the country. The actions that will reduce pollution could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By focusing on issues that followers care about, advocates for aggressive action on climate change may be able to get the support of important countries.

2021 could be the year of climate action

In early December, the United Nations marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement by hosting a summit to get more countries to announce ambitious targets. If you count Biden’s campaign promises, 127 countries have long-term net-zero pledges, accounting for 63 percent of global emissions. The next step is getting countries to follow through.

Countries will be expected to increase their ambition — the targets — at the next U.N. climate negotiations, to be held in Scotland in late 2021. Technology and economics give reason for optimism. The price of renewable electricity has declined dramatically in the past 10 years — it can be as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels.

Many countries are aggressively phasing out coal, the most carbon-intensive source of electricity. Electric vehicles are finally taking off, particularly in Europe and China. Governments are planning to ban sales of vehicles running on fossil fuels in the next 10 to 20 years. The internal combustion engine may go the way of the horse and buggy.

The new Biden administration could lead on climate action. But getting global climate cooperation back on track requires focus on the followers as well as leaders.

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Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. Find him on Twitter @busbyj2.

Johannes Urpelainen is the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also the founding director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy. He tweets @jurpelai.