Is that the cavalry coming over the hill? As scientists and pharmaceutical companies charge in with the promise of a Covid-19 vaccine, another battalion may be stepping up to save the climate. Joe Biden’s election as US president and China’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2060 bring hope that next year’s UN climate summit might break with tradition and actually act to curb emissions. With Japan and South Korea joining the EU in pledging to reach net zero by 2050, that means two-thirds of the world economy is now in play.
Until now, climate diplomacy has battled a zero-sum mindset. Many countries have liked to sound green at summits, while delaying action and freeriding on others’ efforts. But there is a growing realisation that climate action is an investment not a cost — a vital insurance policy against wildfires, floods and other natural disasters.
If global temperatures rise by more than 1.5C, we all lose — just as we all lose if the world fails to contain Covid-19. The Chinese Communist party appreciates that as much as Brussels, although it is not yet clear how China will wean itself off coal given how much it still intends to burn.
The pandemic was a reminder of how fatally linked countries are to each other, but it also showed that early unilateral action pays off. New Zealand didn’t wait around to close its borders against the virus. For real progress to be made on climate, lofty long-term pledges must be converted into detailed plans for this decade.
Here, it is encouraging that Mr Biden wants to decarbonise US electricity by 2035; although his $2tn plan to achieve that looks likely to fall down in a Republican-controlled Senate. He can still exert some power through executive orders, which Barack Obama used to limit vehicle emissions. And of course individual states can go further: California has set a target that half its electricity must come from carbon-free sources within five years.
Beneath the partisan rhetoric in the US and Australia, climate action looks less and less divisive as markets unleash unstoppable forces. Despite US President Donald Trump’s best efforts, the coal industry is shrinking, even in Republican states. Texas long ago became the wild west of wind power. Kansas, Iowa and North Dakota now generate enough renewable energy to meet more than half their electricity demand. Meanwhile, requirements on corporate disclosure of climate risk are making fossil fuels increasingly unappealing to some investors.
Even so, politicians will need to be brave. It is in this decade that tough actions must be taken that will disrupt daily life. Restructuring economies away from fossil fuels will mean ripping out boilers, insulating homes, phasing out the combustion engine and changing the way we farm to improve carbon capture in soil. Not all of that will be popular — and leaders will seek safety in numbers, justifying their actions on climate by what others are doing, just as they did with Covid-19 lockdowns.
President-elect Biden has promised that the US will rejoin the Paris climate accord. His arrival in the White House will also save Boris Johnson from having to triangulate between Mr Trump’s resistance and a world that needs environmental leadership. The British prime minister may have thought Mr Trump would be a stronger ally on trade. But the fact that the UK is hosting next year’s climate summit gives Mr Johnson a platform from which to restore friendly relations.
To impress, the UK needs to rapidly get its house in order. The government has made some strong pledges on energy efficiency and offshore wind, and plans to become the first country to mandate climate disclosures from a range of large listed and private companies. But there is no comprehensive, economy-wide white paper or detailed strategy for the coming decade of the kind the host should be urging from every large economy. Nor is there a team to match the heft of the French staff who achieved the Paris accord in 2015. The UK has a huge asset in Mark Carney, the former Bank of England governor, who is advising on climate finance for the COP26 talks. But the business department and the Treasury seem to be working in separate silos.
Contradictions need to be ironed out. The UK has backed £3.5bn of overseas fossil fuel projects since signing the Paris agreement. This is the opposite of what we should be signalling: that poorer countries can leapfrog fossil fuel technology altogether.
How can nations keep each other honest? One way could be to make carbon emissions more central to trade. Mr Biden’s trade policy includes a proposal for carbon adjustment fees, which would seek to make countries exporting to the US meet climate and environmental obligations. The EU has plans for a carbon border tax to stop industries relocating to countries with less ambitious climate policies.
Both proposals are fraught with complexity and could be self-defeating if they push countries out of the Paris accord. But even thinking this way may change the conversation by helping nations see how much is to be gained from collaboration. Tackling climate can be a win-win proposition, but time is running out.
The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow