United States president Joe Biden was inaugurated on Thursday morning, Australia time, and immediately set to work to bring the United States back into the Paris climate change agreement, signalling the start of a new era of United States climate action and a renewed pressure on countries like Australia to do more.
Speaking of the challenges facing the United States during his inauguration speech, Biden gave the climate crisis top billing, describing it as “a cry for survival … from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.”
Just hours into his presidency, Biden had already signed off on an executive order re-committing United States to the Paris Agreement, bringing the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions back into the international fold just over a year after former president Donald Trump set in motion America’s exit from the accord.
In a separate executive order, Biden also rescinded approvals for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, that was to stretch from Canada to the Gulf Coast in the southern part of the United States.
Biden will face some tougher challenges getting other parts of his ambitious climate change plan implemented, which includes seeing as much as US$2 trillion invested in new modern and low emissions industries, as part of the United States’ response to both climate change and the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the Biden administration has already flagged that it be looking to use the United States’ re-engagement in international climate talks to place pressure on countries lagging behind on climate action – and Australia will be a prime target in this regard.
Some familiar names will be leading the new Biden administration’s work on climate change. Former secretary of state John Kerry, who oversaw the United States’ negotiations on the Paris Agreement, has been appointed as a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, to lead US re-engagement in international climate talks.
Today, @POTUS rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, restoring America’s credibility and commitment — setting a floor, not a ceiling, for our climate leadership. Working together, the world must and will raise ambition. It’s time to get to work – the road to Glasgow begins here.
— Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry (@ClimateEnvoy) January 20, 2021
Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy, who oversaw the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which saw emissions limits placed on most of the United States’ power stations, will serve as the White House National Climate Advisor under Biden.
Eminent Australian economist Ross Garnaut predicted that Australia could see itself relegated to the ‘naughty corner’ in climate change negotiations under a Biden Administration.
CEO of the Climate Council, Amanda McKenzie said following the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President, that Australia was being relegated to a diminishing club of climate policy laggards.
“The election of Joe Biden is very significant for Australia. We no longer have a climate-denying administration in the US to hide behind in international negotiations. The Australian government is now in a shrinking pool of climate wreckers, in the company of Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia,” McKenzie said.
“Australia’s refusal to adopt a credible climate policy is not only costly to our international reputation, it is looking increasingly risky economically.”
“There is now serious talk of carbon border tariffs on imports to the EU, with the US also signalling it will use trade to help increase global ambition.”
— Patricia Espinosa C. (@PEspinosaC) January 20, 2021
Whether the renewed pressure translates to any meaningful action from the Morrison government is yet to be seen. Morrison and his energy minister Angus Taylor have generally taken a stubborn approach to climate policy – increased domestic and international pressure has seen the government double down on insisting that its existing policies are the right ones.
However, Australia burnt significant diplomatic capital during the last round of international climate talks, held in Madrid in 2019, when the Morrison government tried to protect its plan to use leftover emissions credits from its 2020 emissions target, to meet its future 2030 target under the Paris Agreement.
A number of other countries decried this plan as not being within the spirit of the Paris Agreement, and was seen as an attempt by Australia to shortcut its way to meeting otherwise lacklustre targets.
The Morrison government has yet to back down from this plan, but has suggested that potential emissions reductions spurred by the government’s Technology Investment Roadmap could mean the use of the surplus credits is no longer needed.
But this outcome is unlikely to satisfy a growing number of countries that are adopting stricter emissions reduction targets, including commitments to zero net emissions by 2050 – a target the Morrison government has been steadfast in its refusal to adopt.
A failure to embrace stronger emissions reduction policies has already seen Australia shunned by a climate leadership summit convened by the United Kingdom ahead of the next round of international climate change negotiations set to be held in Glasgow at the end of 2021. Morrison was denied a speaking spot at the summit after refusing to commit Australia to any meaningful improvements to its climate policies.
Without an even more recalcitrant Trump Administration to distract from Australia’s own failure to act on climate change, the Morrison government is set to face even stronger pressure from traditional allies to set stronger climate policies.