Podcast: The Biden administration and climate change. A new hope?

Podcast: The Biden administration and climate change. A new ...


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By leaving the Paris agreement, the Trump administration dealt a big blow to multilateral cooperation in the fight against climate change. Other actors took the lead, but our collective efforts are still falling well short. For all the pain it has brought, 2020 may actually have a silver lining when it comes to climate change: the Covid-19 pandemic has made us more aware of our inextricable dependence on our environment, and President-elect Joe Biden promised to get the US back into the Paris agreement as soon as he takes office.

This commitment brings new hope, but how feasible is it to reduce emissions fast enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change? Óscar Fernández and Marie Vandendriessche, senior researchers at EsadeGeo, discuss the most recent developments in climate change policy and diplomacy, and the opportunity Covid-19 relief funds offer to kick-start a “green recovery”.

This episode is part of the EsadeGeo Exchange podcast series.


Oscar Fernández: Hello everyone, and welcome to a new EsadeGeo podcast on Do Better by Esade. My name is Oscar Fernández and I’m a senior researcher at EsadeGeo. Today’s podcast is part of the EsadeGeo Exchange series which covers a broad range of issues related to geopolitics and global governance. In today’s podcast, we will address what is arguably the most important collective challenge that humanity is facing – climate change.

And to take us through the most recent developments in climate change diplomacy and energy policy, we have with us a colleague and dear friend of mine, Marie Vandendriessche, who is a senior researcher at EsadeGeo. Marie has many fields of expertise, but her work mostly focuses on the interface between energy and climate change, including policy, geopolitics and global governance. Thank you, Marie, for being with us today, a pleasure to share this podcast with you.

Marie Vandendriessche: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Oscar Fernández: Let me begin by echoing the words of the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, who delivered his state of the planet speech a few days ago. Right at the outset he said, and I quote: ‘to put it simply the state of the planet is broken’. He gave many figures to back up this statement and one of the most striking was that we are headed towards a thundering temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century. Tell us Marie, how does this square with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which by the way, is five years old this month.

Marie Vandendriessche: Well, the statement is clear and important. It is a statement of urgency. We are not reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement. In Paris five years ago, states agreed that they were going to limit the rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels to a maximum of two degrees and to make efforts to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. We are now talking about levels that are twice that, and this is extremely dangerous when it comes to climate change. Once you reach certain levels of warming, you start to disturb Earth systems that are highly interlinked and planetary boundaries are pushed too far. So, I think it is an important message delivered five years after Paris. He is telling the world that more action is necessary and urgent.

Oscar Fernández: This has been a difficult year for the world with the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences. But there must have been at least one silver lining, which is that since many economies went into hibernation or quasi-hibernation, we were able to reduce emissions. Is this the case? Is this what actually happened?

Marie Vandendriessche: Well, yes, there was a short-term reduction in emissions. The world suddenly stopped – which is something that has not previously happened. And so yes, we did see a short-term drop in emissions. The projections that the International Energy Agency made a number of months ago were that emissions would be 8% lower than in any given year. But that does not mean that our contribution to climate change has stopped this year. It is simply a bit lower than in another years.

Climate change is a cumulative problem: once emitted, CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a very long time. Regardless of how much we emit, we are continuing to contribute to the problem which we will feel for many years afterwards. And so, it is beneficial that we had the short-term drop in emissions, but we also saw how quickly emissions rebounded. The case of China is very clear. Already in April emissions were back to pre-pandemic levels. We see, for example, that emissions from steel production in China have actually exceeded pre-pandemic levels. So when economic recovery comes, the risk is that emissions also recover, and we remain on the path that we have been for a long time – which is a dangerous path that urgently needs to be decarbonised.

When economic recovery comes, the risk is that emissions also recover, and we remain on the path that we have been for a long time – which is a dangerous path that urgently needs to be decarbonised

Oscar Fernández: Can we say that when countries restarted their economies, they did so at the expense of green policies? And they did not take advantage of the economic opportunities that energy transition offers?

Marie Vandendriessche: Well, it is not possible to simply turn a switch and suddenly have a decarbonised economy. Energy emissions are baked into the way that we currently operate – and the way our companies, markets, and economies operate – and the way that we move around. So it is not an easy question to address. Many countries have considered green goals that require a reduction of emissions when designing their recovery policies. The EU is definitely a leader here. Some 30% of the Next Generation EU funds are destined for spending on climate goals. So it has been taken into account, but not by all countries equally.

I think we need to differentiate between the short term, the mid-term, and the long-term. In the short-term, when the economy restarts, it is likely that it will restart in a similar way to before. What needs to happen is that policies must be rapidly put into place to change that. And the good news is that there are technologies available that can make it economically viable to do the same things, or similar things, but with much lower emissions. The message is that the economic recovery can be green.

There is a way to combine an economic recovery and green goals, but of course, it is not simple, and we have to watch out for those segments of the population that may be affected due to decarbonisation goals. I’m thinking, for example, of coal mining, which is a classic example. Industries that will be affected by decarbonisation goals need to be considered and specific policies put into place. We can get into the debate about a just transition, which is the way we want to bring everybody along in this important transition. But the message is that it is possible, and it is critical. This Covid crisis is a turning point, and has been very difficult for everyone, but it can also be an opportunity to change things. The stimulus packages that are being agreed are so important, and they can make a difference in our trajectory – and they need to.

Oscar Fernández: So apart from Covid-19, this year brought us at least one development that is unquestionably good for the fight against climate change, which is a change in the White House. Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, and he pledged to bring his country back to the Paris Agreement on Day 1 of his presidency. What do you make of this commitment, Marie?

Marie Vandendriessche: It is an important commitment. It shows the priority that president-elect Biden is placing on climate change. The US leaving the Paris Agreement was really a blow because the Paris Agreement was the first climate agreement of this type that all the countries in the world signed – even war-torn Syria signed this agreement. The only country that left the agreement was the US. It is important that the US returns to the negotiating table. And I think that another important signal is that he has appointed John Kerry as US envoy for climate change. Kerry is well respected in international climate circles. He was engaged with the Kyoto Protocol; he was engaged with the Paris Agreement. So it is an important signal of trying to restore trust in the US in this kind of climate negotiation.

The US leaving the Paris Agreement was really a blow because the Paris Agreement was the first climate agreement of this type that all the countries in the world signed

Nevertheless, I do have to put a caveat here. This is the second time that the US has negotiated a climate agreement of this type, and then has left it, in one way or another. And so, I think that countries have become clearer on the fact that this can happen again. It will be difficult, important and difficult, for the US to regain the trust of its partners. I also think that other countries are starting to adapt. And they now know how to work without the US. It is something I imagine that we will discuss a little bit further on in the podcast. So to recap, I think it is a crucial decision, but even more important will be restoring trust, and of course, the domestic implementation.

Oscar Fernández: You mentioned the important appointment of John Kerry as climate envoy. Can you take us through the other promises, or other gestures that Biden has made on climate policy? Either during his campaign or later as president-elect?

Marie Vandendriessche: Sure. One of the major promises is Biden’s platform commitment to climate neutrality by 2050. And that’s a big deal. The US will be joining a club of countries who have made recent announcements committing to climate or carbon neutrality. The EU was one of the first to announce the aim to be a climate-neutral continent by 2050 and others have recently joined (China, South Korea, Japan, and so on). Making this kind of commitments is significant, and it is not an easy commitment to make, but it is a necessary one.

Biden also committed to increasing spending on green goals – two trillion dollars was the number he mentioned. We have to talk about how this is going to be implemented. If Biden wins a clear majority in the House and the Senate, it would be fairly easy and straightforward to implement. But if he ends up with a divided House and Senate, it is going to be much more difficult. He also has a lot of ground to make up for all of the efforts that the previous administration made to deregulate climate change. And so, I think we need to look both to the external and internal dimension of the US. A return to climate diplomacy is important. Implementing these green goals domestically will be a struggle, and I’m sure that the transition team is thinking seriously about how this can be done.

If Biden wins a clear majority in the House and the Senate, it would be fairly easy and straightforward to increase spending on green goals, as he promised

Oscar Fernández: Let’s rewind for a bit, and let’s look at the last four years of Trump’s presidency. There is a sense that his presidency was catastrophic for the fight against climate change. But how did the US actually do in practice? Did some states manage to counteract Trump’s policies? Did market incentives maybe accelerate the adoption of renewables despite Trump’s efforts to protect coal – the most polluting of fossil fuels?

Marie Vandendriessche: What Trump did, which has been particularly harmful with regard to climate policy, has been an extreme effort of deregulation. There is a counter, managed by the New York Times and based on research from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and other sources, about the deregulation effort. It already logs 104 environmental or climate regulation roll-backs that have been completed or are in progress.

Restoring all of that is going to be difficult, because they really tried to go deep and remove the root and branch of some of these regulations and to make it hard to reintroduce them in the future. This is important, for example, when it comes to methane leaks and so on, however, there was already a trend in the US towards lower emissions in the power sector, and that has continued despite Trump’s promises to restore coal and make it king again. That has not worked, and why? It is for economic reasons. Coal has become uncompetitive with, for example, natural gas, and that has led US emissions to decrease in that sector. In a nutshell, there has been a lot of effort to deregulate, but certain market trends kept the US on a path to some decarbonisation – although obviously not enough. Taking the US out of Paris was a blow, but the rest of the countries managed it fairly well – it could have been worse.

Oscar Fernández: You mentioned before one of the catchphrases of this century, which is going to be ‘climate neutrality’. Can you explain what this concept means and how technologies are advancing in this regard? Is carbon capture and storage the only option at our disposal?

Marie Vandendriessche: Climate neutrality is a huge term. There are two terms we should be looking at: carbon neutrality and climate neutrality, and these have been used varyingly by certain countries. Carbon neutrality, for example, has been promised by China, South Korea, and Japan. Climate neutrality is what the EU and US are committing to and it depends on reaching net zero for all greenhouse emissions or just CO2 emissions. CO2 is the largest contingent, but it is not the only gas that contributes to climate change. And the idea of climate neutrality, or carbon neutrality, is to bring the level of those gases to net zero by a certain year, and whether it is 2050 or 2060 depends on the country. Now, with regard to the technologies to achieve this, I would say that it depends on the sector. For example in the power sector, we have all heard about the rise of renewables and how they have become competitive with many other electricity generating sources, and I think that we are moving quickly towards decarbonising more and more of this sector. The process is not complete, there are still many hurdles to clear for many reasons.

Climate neutrality is a tremendously important target, and getting there will require major efforts

The real problem is in other sectors, where progress is a little slower, and where we probably still need more technological development, and more market and regulatory incentives to get the technologies into place. Carbon capture and storage is one of the technologies – but there are many others on the table. And the sectors that we are discussing here include transport, where emissions are still growing in many countries and including the EU, and industry, which often requires high levels of heat for production and this is a very difficult process to decarbonise. Climate neutrality is a tremendously important target, and getting there will require major efforts.

Oscar Fernández: Let me go back to the speech that UN Secretary General Guterres gave recently, in which he mentioned that more than 110 countries have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2050. China is responsible for the largest share of emissions in absolute terms, not in per capita terms, and the government recently announced a target of carbon neutrality by 2060. How big is this news?

Marie Vandendriessche: It is huge news. Let me state that very clearly. It is huge for many reasons. The first is that China is the largest emitter, and it accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s emissions. The second reason why I find this announcement extremely important is that China made it unilaterally, somewhat unexpectedly even to many in the climate community, during the UN General Assembly this year. This is a major turning point. Historically, when it comes to climate policy and cooperation, it has been important to have many countries together, specifically the countries that started emitting greenhouse gases first – such as Europe and the US.

These nations needed to be on board to make these kinds of big announcements. China, for example, when it came to the Paris Agreement, made a climate commitment together with the US and that was a big deal. And now, five years on, we see China moving on its own on this issue. This is extremely significant. And I think it can mean many things: it is a signal to the world, it is probably also a domestic signal. It is a signal that China thinks that it is possible, beneficial, and necessary. China is seeing that the economics of doing this makes sense. China probably wants to become the leader, and they already are leaders in certain technologies in this transition. And so, it is an extremely significant move that many other countries are going to be watching very closely.

China probably wants to become the leader, and they already are leaders in certain technologies in this transition

Oscar Fernández: The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that China is able to make quick and effective policy adjustments, but China’s dependence on coal is well documented. Do you think that China is going to be able to overcome this coal dependency and move towards this carbon neutrality goal?

Marie Vandendriessche: Well, that is a difficult question, and it is a question that other countries are also wrestling with. China is extremely capable of mobilising huge investments to make big moves. And they generally do not promise something that they cannot deliver. I think that it looks positive on that front. That does not mean that there are no major challenges ahead. And I think that a lot of this will depend on the connection between the local levels of government and the national level of government. It will be important to see how China deals with the impact of decarbonisation on certain sectors of its population and industry. And that is something that is coming up for many other countries too.

Oscar Fernández: Okay, so let’s move from China to the European Union, which was the first to announce its ambition to achieve climate neutrality as a continent. And climate change has been an area where the EU has consistently striven for leadership. The Columbia professor Anu Bradford coined the phrase ‘the Brussels effect’ to refer to the EU’s regulatory power and its ability to project it beyond its borders. Would you say that there is a Brussels effect in climate change policy and diplomacy?

Marie Vandendriessche: That is a great question. The EU has certainly wanted to be the leader in climate change for a long time. And it has done so through various instruments. It has tried to lead by example, and so some of the policies that the EU implements are the most advanced in the world. You could almost say that a kind of Brussels effect is showing what is possible, which includes going through the experimentation that is sometimes necessary to design these policies. The EU can be a model in certain senses, showing what is possible – and what is not. An important part of the leadership of the EU in this issue is how it has conducted its diplomacy. For the Paris Agreement, its alignment with a group of high-ambition countries was important, and the announcement of that coalition, that was made in the middle of this conference, had a major impact.

An important part of the leadership of the EU in this issue is how it has conducted its diplomacy

The way the EU relates with other countries on climate change is also important. It has relations with certain African countries, for example, that are important for building bridges when it comes to climate agreements. Trade agreements are also important because the EU generally requires that countries respect certain climate or environmental goals – such as the Paris Agreement – before they can be signed. On the technology side of things, Europe is also quite advanced. The EU is also showing what can be done in policy. It’s important to decide quickly on the 2030 goals which are currently on the table. And to make a signal towards the rest of the world and show that the EU can retain leadership on climate change.

Oscar Fernández: Let’s look forward to the year 2021 and the COP26, which will take place in Glasgow after having been postponed this year due to Covid-19. What are countries expected to do in Glasgow? And do you think that they will rise up to the challenge?

Marie Vandendriessche: COP26 is another one of the victims of Covid. It was supposed to take place right about now in the city of Glasgow. It was supposed to be a crucial summit, five years after Paris, and kind of a check-up with countries making new commitments. And it was moved back for a year for obvious reasons. That has some downsides and some upsides. The fact that it was moved by a year means that we have clarity on the US administration. It will also enable some other countries to get their ducks in a row. In Glasgow, we are expecting countries to submit new and updated commitments to the Paris Agreement. Nations made a first set of commitments five years ago, but the Paris Agreement was always constructed as a cyclical and catalytic agreement.

The idea is that it should increase ambition in cycles and that’s what we are looking for in Glasgow. We are looking for countries to make clear and ambitious commitments towards climate change, to decrease the gap between those goals that were set up, and that we discussed at the very beginning of this podcast, namely the two-degree goal and the 1.5-degree goal – and the actuality. That’s what we are looking for. I think that the elections in the US and China’s new announcement are great signals in this regard, so let’s see whether we can continue that positive trend with more announcements, and importantly, more action.

Oscar Fernández: Well, I think this optimistic tone is a good stopping point for this podcast, Marie. Thank you very much for taking us through all of these developments in climate change policy and diplomacy, and we look forward to a better year in 2021.

Marie Vandendriessche: Thank you. Indeed, I think it’s important to maintain pragmatic optimism and work urgently towards the action that we need. Thanks very much for inviting me.

Oscar Fernández: Thank you, Marie. And let’s remind everyone that we will continue with other podcasts in this EsadeGeo Exchange series. So, stay tuned for that. And to wrap up, let me wish you all happy holidays on behalf of the entire EsadeGeo team. See you soon.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.