Biden’s Climate Policy — What’s Missing?

A fair shares approach could help save the “net zero 2050” strategy

Originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus


Was Joe Biden’s climate summit a success? The answer has to be “compared to what?”

If Trumpism is our point of comparison, then Biden’s agenda imagines an amazing reboot. Its centerpiece, after all, is a pledge to reduce U.S. domestic emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and while it’s easy to say this isn’t enough—I will do so myself, just below—it’s also easy to say that, in today’s America, cutting emissions in half in nine years would be an astonishing accomplishment.

Cuts of this magnitude are certainly possible. They would almost be easy, if we had a stable and well-functioning government, especially now that the renewable energy revolution is finally hitting its inflection point. But though green electricity will soon be too cheap to meter, the path forward is still strewn with obstacles, and the fossil-energy cartel fully intends to play out a long endgame. We can hope to cut it short, but we’ll need a coherent, fairness-forward industrial and social policy (including a Green New Deal), and a global breakthrough in the bargain. Winning either is going to be quite a challenge in today’s America, harrowed as it is by a lunatic right.

If, however, science is our point of comparison, matters look different. Witness the IPCC’s 2018 special report on Global warming of 1.5°C, which after decades of denial and delay somehow managed to tell us, in a way we could actually hear, that we have to act at a speed and on a scale that have “no documented historic precedent.” Its rather dry declaration—“In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range)”—was widely read as a call to arms.

After Denialism

You wouldn’t have expected such words to define a major international pivot, but they did. They inspired the “net zero 2050” and the “50 percent cuts by 2030” targets, which are now everywhere and have even reshaped the international negotiations. Virtually all countries are being asked to strengthen their short-term pledges of climate action (also known as “nationally determined contributions”, or NDCs) so they plausibly align with net zero 2050. More than 30 have done so, with mid-century net zero targets set or proposed in law and policy, and many, many others are actively discussing such targets. All of which is to say that, even though the activist community hates the “net” word, “net zero 2050” has gone mainstream and taken on an almost normative air. You’re nobody in the climate world if you haven’t at least gestured at a net zero 2050 pledge.

Which is not the problem. The problem is rather that, while the IPCC asserted net zero 2050 and 50 percent by 2030 as global benchmarks, they are being taken as national benchmarks. In fact, they are being conflated—by national leaders everywhere and even by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres—with basic, good-faith earnestness, as if achieving net zero 2050 was “an important yardstick by which climate pledges by major economies are to be judged,” as if, that is, it defined fair national pledges. Here I’m quoting an important statement by Navroz Dubash, Harald Winkler and Lavanya Rajamani—three widely respected developing world climate policy analysts—who warn that net zero 2050 targets do “not account for considerations of justice across countries, important differences in national climate politics, or the credibility of pledges.”

Continue reading “Biden’s Climate Policy — What’s Missing?”

The Fair Shares NDC hits the Media

Well, the launch of the U.S. Fair Shares Nationally Determined Contribution went pretty well.  (Not the real one, though that launch was also pretty successful). The first major pickup was from Bill McKibben, who featured the FSNDC in his New Yorker climate column, here,  in this nice pithy paragraph. 

“I’ve written before about the important work of EcoEquity in figuring out the responsibility that different countries should bear for the climate crisis and how they should respond. Building on this work, a group of N.G.O.s last week called on the U.S. to cut emissions by a hundred and ninety-five per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. This can be achieved by cutting our own carbon output by seventy per cent, and providing technology and funding to developing countries to help them achieve the equivalent of the remaining hundred-and-twenty-five-per-cent reduction. Meanwhile, the Times reports that dozens of countries need debt relief because climate crises (and COVID-19) are decimating their budgets. Increasingly, according to Somini Sengupta, lenders such as the International Monetary Fund are studying proposals under which “rich countries and private creditors offer debt relief, so countries can use those funds to transition away from fossil fuels, adapt to the effects of climate change, or obtain financial reward for the natural assets they already protect, like forests and wetlands.”

Then, as we approached Earth Day and President Biden’s Climate Leaders Summit, things picked up. Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich published a nice piece called The U.S. Has a New Climate Goal. How Does It Stack Up Globally? which included this balanced segment, and a nice quote from Climate Equity Reference Project co-director Sivan Kartha:

“If every country were to meet its stated climate goals, America’s per capita emissions would decline and converge with China’s by 2030, the Rhodium Group estimated. But both countries’ per capita emissions would still be twice that of Europe’s and nearly four times that of India’s.

Partly for that reason, some environmentalists have argued that the United States should have picked an even more ambitious target for reducing emissions. Doing so would not only make up for decades of being by far the world’s largest emitter, they argue, but would also give lower-income countries like India more time to transition off fossil fuels. One recent report by a range of civil society groups urged the United States to commit to a 70 percent cut by 2030, along with vast new funding for clean-energy projects in the developing world.

“If you’re asking whether the U.S. target is fair and ambitious, the right yardstick isn’t what will pass muster with the Senate,” said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and a co-author of the report. “The question is what should the United States do given its capacity to act and its historical responsibility for causing the problem?”

That was great, but we had expected it. But then we discovered that Kate Aronoff, a staff writer at The New Republic whose new book on the climate crisis Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet–And How We Fight Back–can I say that it’s hot off the press?–immediately joined the short list of essential climate-political titles, had just featured the Fair Shares NDC in in the opinion section, with a fine piece called Biden Is All About Zero Emissions, but Who Do You Think Has Been Fueling Them?, wherein she embeds this para . . .

“But accounting for the United States’ outsize responsibility for the climate crisis requires much bolder action, according to a recent recommendation from several groups, including Friends of the Earth U.S. and ActionAid USA: “a reduction of at least 195 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions” compared with 2005 levels by 2030 — 70 percent cuts within U.S. borders and “the equivalent of a further 125 percent reduction” by providing support for emissions reductions abroad.”

. . . into a longer argument that centers the sprawling landscape of geopolitical, geoeconomic, and ideological challenges the are the subject of her book. I must read for sure.

The day ended, at least for me, with an invitation to speak on BBC TV, which I of course accepted, though I am a bit out of practice. You can watch it here.

Not too bad for one day


A model US “Fair Shares” Pledge

You remember the Paris Agreement, right? As a good thing, right?

There are two reasons why you should. The first is that Paris actually exists, and really could serve as a keystone of planetary climate mobilization. The second is that its “ambition mechanisms” (its “ambition ratchet”) are intended to strengthen the national pledges of action (official known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs) over and over again, as time goes by. Such that, when the history of the climate reckoning is finally written, the Paris ratchet will be a crucial part of the story. If it has worked, then all the Agreement’s shortcomings will be forgiven. If it hasn’t, we’ll have to admit, for whatever cold comfort it brings us, that the cynics in our ranks were right, and that Paris was just another false promise.

This isn’t a piece on the ambition ratchet, though I plan to write one. Rather, it’s a quick note to announce the “Fair Shares NDC” that was recently released by a rather ad-hoc coalition of people and groups from the U.S. climate left, for the explicit purpose of modeling the actions we believe the U.S. should actually be pledging, in this the pivotal first year of what promises to be a pivotal decade. We don’t claim the Fair Shares NDC is perfect—this is a work in progress—but we do claim that its asks, “unrealistic” or “utopian” though you may judge them to be, should not be casually set aside, not if we  intend to achieve the Paris temperature goals. Rather, at a minimum, take the Fair Shares NDC as a standard against which to measure the Biden Administration’s more official offering.

One key bit of context—the climate mobilization has now begun in earnest, and it wasn’t Paris that set the spark. Paris didn’t hurt, but if you look back for the single best marker, the one that most clearly illuminates the end of the denialist interregnum and the beginning of today’s struggle towards seriousness, you’d be better off choosing the IPCC’s special report on Global warming of 1.5°C, which somehow managed to shift the frame. You can see this in the shape of the current negotiations, in which countries around the world are being asked to announce commitments to reduce their emissions to “net zero” by 2050. This figure comes directly from the IPCC report, which told us, among much else, that we had best do our damnedest to hold the warming to 1.5°C, and that this means global reductions of about 50% by 2030. [i]

There’s a lot to say about these numbers, but the point here is only that they’ve gone viral, and mainstream, and indeed have taken on an almost normative air. You’re nobody, these days, if you haven’t made a net zero 2050 pledge. Which is not the problem. The problem is rather that ours is a world in which some countries are fantastically rich, while others are not, in which some countries have emitted huge amounts of greenhouse gases, while others have not, and yet the international pressure to achieve a universal push for unconditional national net zero 2050 pledges takes very little account of these defining facts. To the point where now, with 2030 pledges high on the agenda, even rich countries like the US can get away with adopting the global average figure—a 50% by 2030 reduction target—and expect it to be widely accepted as being, well, fair enough.

The problem is that the 50% number—which the IPCC asserted as a global 2030 reduction target—is not in any way a proper guide to national fair shares, nor will it ever be. There is no future in which the 2030 US fair share, and the 2030 fair share of, say, Sierra Leone, are going to be the same. Which brings us to the question at the heart of the Fair Shares NDC—what should the U.S. pledge in its new NDC? Or, more precisely, what would it pledge if it was actually proposing to do its fair share, relative to the demands of the 1.5°C global temperature goal, and in the light of its outsized national wealth and responsibility?

Continue reading “A model US “Fair Shares” Pledge”

Rebooting a failed promise of climate finance

Remember Copenhagen? Where Hillary Clinton, on behalf of the “developed countries,” pledged $100 billion in annual climate finance? What followed, of course, was an almost perfect proof that rich world promises were not to be believed.

It’s a long and depressing story, not least because it can be explained by incompetence just as easily as by venality, but Timmons Roberts and a group of collaborators have just summarized it well, in an short, excellent, and entirely trustworthy piece in Nature Climate Change called Rebooting a failed promise of climate finance. It’s not even behind a paywall.

I only have one wee complaint. The concluding paragraph, the one that–as per the conventions of professional political commentary–makes helpful suggestions about the way forward, is a bit too measured for my taste. It reads as follows:

“The 2015 Paris Agreement specified that a new collective, quantified goal for climate finance is to be agreed prior to 2025, with US$100 billion per year as the minimum. Now is the time to begin that effort with ambition and accountability to build enduring trust and resilience. Future climate finance pledges and targets should be based on realistic assessments of developing countries’ needs. Then real plans must be built and implemented to meet those funding targets; for example, through innovative finance, like levies on international airline passengers and bunker fuels. To meet the promise of ‘adequate and predictable’ financing made back in Copenhagen, new global financing mechanisms have to be implemented, since annually decided ‘contributions’ from national treasuries are not delivering on the promise. First though, clear rules for what counts as climate finance need to be agreed.

My problem? Not that future climate finance pledges should be based on proper needs assessments. Or that we’re going to have to rely on “innovative finance” to meet those needs. Only that we should give up on demanding contributions from national treasuries–which are indeed “not delivering on the promise”–while we wait for an innovative finance breakthrough to show up.

It almost seems that Timmons et. al. actually expect a near-term breakthrough on that front. I for one will believe it when I see it. In the meanwhile, I’m going to continue to work to establish the fair shares frame. It seems to me that it can only help.

Caution from India on taking a “net Zero” pledge

The Indian Express recently featured a joint editorial by three of my favorite Indian analysts, Ambuj Sagar, Lavanya Rajamani, and Navroz Dubash, in which the three, all influential in their own right, team up to deliver a common message — India needs to mobilize, but both it and the world may be better off if it concentrates on its existing development first agenda rather than jumping on the “net zero” bandwagon.

I don’t entirely agree with this take. I would have preferred a much stronger emphasis on the emergency, more consideration of the need for rapidly scaled up international support, and more emphasis on adaptation and loss & damage finance. But “the three” have good reasons for their take, which you can imagine pretty easily if you read between the lines, and in particular if you recall the grim nature of the Modi regime.

Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’ — and a few responses

“Telling the Truth,” as per Extinction Rebellion’s first rule, turns out to be a bit complicated.  It’s easy to tell the “We’re probably fucked” part of the story. The hard part is imagining a way forward.

Back in January, a group of 17 ecologists and environmental scientists — prominently including Paul Ehrlich — published Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

It’s a must read, and a grim one. And can’t hope to improve on the summary ecologist Carl Safina gave in Yale Environment 360 when he said that it reads “reads less as an argument than as a rain of asteroids encountered in the course of flying blind on a lethal trajectory,” or his summary of its findings, which only begin with biodiversity loss. Here (minus the links) is a sample:

“Major changes in the biosphere are directly linked to the growth of human systems. While the rapid loss of species and populations differs regionally in intensity, and most species have not been adequately assessed for extinction risk, certain global trends are obvious. Since the start of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has been halved , with a corresponding loss of >20% of its original biodiversity, together denoting that >70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by Homo sapiens . There have been >700 documented vertebrate and ~600 plant species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more species clearly having gone extinct unrecorded . Population sizes of vertebrate species that have been monitored across years have declined by an average of 68% over the last five decades, with certain population clusters in extreme decline , thus presaging the imminent extinction of their species . Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future out of an estimated 7–10 million eukaryotic species on the planet, with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered . Today, the global biomass of wild mammals is <25% of that estimated for the Late Pleistocene , while insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions.”

But I’m not writing to ask you to read the “ghastly” paper. I’m writing to ask you to read it, and then to read Safina’s review of it, and then to read Notes from a 1.2C world, a response the emerging critic Laurie Laybourn-Langton wrote of it, and my own response, below, though with the stipulation that is an it’s an “insider” document I wrote to the folks at The Omega Network after attending the webinar they organized to discuss it. And I’m asking you, after doing all this reading, to up your game.

What’s the problem? That this paper, brilliant though it is in describing the deterioration of our planetary home, it is not equally brilliant when it comes to helping us work out how to respond. Which was to be expected back in the old days, but this is 2021 — the eye of the storm — and the second wind is approaching, and what matters now is what we’re going to do.

Not that Ghastly’s description of the problem is bad . . .

Continue reading “Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’ — and a few responses”

Tom speaks, this time to Doug Henwood

Following the publication of The US Returns to the Paris Agreement Today—With Lots of Work Ahead for the World in The Nation, I spent some time expounding my very conditional optimism on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News podcast. The interview, which was performed on March 4, is here (27:50) and I actually think it was pretty coherent.

Listen if you’re on the left, worried about climate catastrophe, sick of blithe criticisms of the Paris Agreement.

Over 50,000 people & 195 global groups demand Biden commit the U.S. to do its “fair share” on climate

February 17, 2021

The petition is the latest call for Biden administration to walk the walk on climate by taking responsibility for historical emissions

Washington — Just days before the reentry of the United States into the Paris Agreement becomes official, environmental groups delivered the signatures of more than 50,000 people in the U.S. The signatures are the latest escalation in a growing call demanding that the Biden Administration commit to doing its fair share of emissions cuts and honor owed support for Global South countries, including climate finance. The petition reflects analysis released in December from the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) that provides a path for the U.S. to take action that is in line with its responsibility for the climate crisis. 

The delivery follows a sign-on letter from over 100 U.S. climate groups including USCAN  which represents more than 175 US climate organizations, released for the 5-year anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement. The call has now been endorsed by a total of 195 organizations including the international Climate Action Network, which represents more than 1,500 organizations from over 130 countries. 

Earlier this month a similar coalition also demanded that the Biden administration commit $8 billion to the Green Climate Fund as well as further contributions to the Adaptation Fund. While the Biden transition team has yet to acknowledge the demand from this national coalition of people and organizations, incoming Climate Envoy John Kerry has spoken about the need for the US to do its fair share.

According to the analysis released by USCAN, for the U.S. to begin to do its fair share of the global action needed to help limit global warming to 1.5°C, it must reduce U.S. emissions 195% by 2030 (down from 2005 levels). To assemble this contribution, the analysis calls for U.S. domestic emissions reductions of 70% by 2030 combined with a further 125% reduction achieved by providing financial and technological support for emission reductions in Global South countries.

The Biden administration has enacted a flurry of climate executive orders and previously committed to a plan of net-zero by 2050. But announcements to achieve net zero have been met with criticism from climate groups and scientists for not being ambitious enough and relying on technologies and approaches that are unproven, dangerous, or not achievable at scale.  

The extremely large U.S. fair share contribution partly reflects U.S. emissions to date. Today’s global warming is driven by cumulative emissions (not annual emissions), and the U.S. has already historically emitted more than any other country. In fact, many analyses deem that the U.S. has far surpassed its fair share of the cumulative global carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5°C. The domestic reduction of 70% by 2030 recommended by USCAN roughly aligns with an extremely ambitious decarbonization via a prosperous economy-wide mobilization.

The fair share demand is one part of a larger framework prescribed by environmental groups called the Climate President Action Plan. The plan includes ten steps the administration can take to fulfill its promise to take bold steps on climate and rebuild trust abroad.  

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10 myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted

You can probably reel off these ten key reasons to distrust and oppose offsetting in your sleep. But you might not get them all.. Time for a review! And while you’re at it, have you read the Factor of Two paper, the one by Kevin Anderson and friends? It’s cited here, and it too is worth a reread.

PS: This is a very topical point. The climate negotiators are entering a phase in which countries around the world — and at all levels of “development” — are making “net zero” 2050 pledges. However, there has been no climate finance breakthrough. And given this, a lot of those pledges are going to wind up being paper only. The pressure to make them seem real will be extreme, and (all else being equal) this means that crap offsets will proliferate.