As Americans count the votes in what is easily the most uncertain and unusual election in recent history, the stakes could not be higher. The US is set to officially leave the Paris climate agreement on the 4th of November, no matter the victor. Whether they re-join next year depends on who wins. Trump’s impact on America’s climate and energy policies over four years has been inarguably devastating.
While having failed to reverse the structural decline of the country’s coal industry, Trump has boosted oil and gas extraction and burning while doing as much as possible to stop clean energy deployment and research. The slow destruction of the country’s Environmental Protection Agency and vehicle emissions standards have been particularly damaging, likely to lead to eye-watering increases in emissions in the near-term, if they are not stopped.
As RenewEconomy’s Michael Mazengarb wrote yesterday, a Biden win would lead to a major shift in the geopolitics of climate change. Another big net-zero gorilla to loom over Australia’s inaction is Scott Morrison’s worst nightmare. The Democrat’s climate plan is far more solid than it was this time last year, with some surprisingly ambitious goals, including 100% zero carbon electricity by 2035, net zero emissions across the economy by 2050, 100% EVs sales (with an unclear deadline), energy efficiency, ending fossil fuel subsidies and others.
Despite the decline of coal, gas still dominates the US electricity grid, and combustion engine vehicles still dominate the roads. Though total reformation of both of these sectors within fifteen years is a clear possibility, both will be incredibly hard under a Biden administration, as the government would have to enact changes that lock in momentum to be able to withstand future Trump-style blocking.
The growth of wind and solar in the US – particularly wind – has indeed been embedded with its own sort of ‘momentum’. Of all the zero carbon options in the US, it is these two technologies that have shown the most potential in terms of growth, and most importantly, withstood the Trump presidency. But it is the growth of gas – also unstoppable – that has locked in serious emissions impacts over the coming years. The gap created by rising demand and falling coal generation has been filled, mostly, by another fossil fuel in the US:
Reducing gas usage in the US is a hotly contested issue. Biden and Harris have faced some strong criticism for not promising to ban fracking, while others point out that a massive clean energy push would erase demand for those fracking operations. It is not immaterial that the US president is incapable of banning fracking even if they want to. The heavier questions then come down on how exactly Biden might enact massive, rapid changes across electricity, transport and building energy consumption.
Several attempts have been made to publish plans, outlines and pathways for ambitious, rapid climate action in the US. The ‘Rewiring America’ plan, led by Australian-American technology pioneer Saul Griffith, details a pathway to decarbonisation that brings immediate financial and social benefits to American citizens.
“If done right, we would create millions of new, good-paying jobs in every zip code, save each household on average between $1,050 to $2,585 per year on its energy bills, and dramatically reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions — all the while enjoying zippier cars and smarter appliances” – Rewiring America
Rewiring America’s plan focuses heavily on electrification of buildings, transport and industry, alongside a rapid transition to clean energy on the grid. These two big climate challenges each sit under a common message within the organisation’s reports: that climate action has immediate benefits, and that is why they ought to be implemented. These narratives hold an important clue about the future of climate action in the United States: the best pathways seem to be those that are immune to federal wrongdoing, whether that’s current or potential change in the future. ‘Ground up’ change is slower than pushing at the problem from both directions, but it is certainly less vulnerable to sabotage. When the desire for climate action becomes driven by a realisation of just how significant the improvements to life are in the immediate sense, at least some change begins to form its own momentum.
Of course, the rate of change matters, because it is the absolute value of total, cumulative greenhouse gas emissions that decides the consequences for humanity and the environment. Going slower would be disastrous, no matter the silver linings that would exist at the edges. But the US election reveals that future-proofing decarbonisation is incredibly important. Creating the same coal-like structural decline in oil and gas is the next big step, as is making electrification and clean energy both cheaper and faster.
There is a decent chance of a long, drawn out process to decide the winner of the US election today. It may not be a clean win for Biden or Trump, and there will be plenty of unrest regardless of how solid the outcome is. The eventual winner will decide whether America’s climate battles are fought from the ground up, or from all directions at once. Most time in climate geopolitics is spent around gradual, atomised policy, social and economic changes, but this moment is a nerve-wracking pivot point which will push America’s carbon curve in a very specific direction.