What Joe Biden’s win means for net zero

The president-elect may be an improvement on his predecessor, but he is no Greta Thunberg.

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Climate campaigners breathed a massive sigh of relief when Joe Biden was projected to win the US election. Donald Trump has spent the past four years rolling back environmental legislation, denying climate change and championing the coal industry.

Biden campaigned with a $2trn climate plan and, even before he was voted in, had promised to bring the US back into the Paris climate agreement, which the country exited the day after the election.

But despite Trump’s efforts to the contrary, clean energy surged in the US under his tenure. This growth was in no small part thanks to pure economics – new utility-scale onshore wind is now the cheapest source of power that can be added to the grid in America. Coal-fired power in the country is in terminal decline.

Biden is ready to speed up the transition from fossil fuels to renewables with his climate plan, pitched as a green economic stimulus package, and he wants the US to join the ranks of those countries, such as the UK, China, Japan and those in the EU, which are aiming for net zero emissions by 2050, or in Beijing’s case, 2060. 

He is no Greta Thunberg, however.

Read more: Can America really go green? 

The US remained at the table for three years after announcing it would leave the Paris Agreement, not least to ensure the accord’s rulebook would not stymie American plans for exporting surplus shale gas in the form of liquefied natural gas. Biden is unlikely to do much, certainly not at first, to change this. Greater US engagement in international climate talks could increase consideration of gas as a transition fuel.

The argument that natural gas should first replace the most polluting fossil fuels of oil and coal before greener gases and renewables are brought fully online is an old and increasingly outdated one, given the competitiveness of wind and solar power globally.

A clear example of this changing mindset is the decision by BP to reinvent itself as an “integrated energy company”, reducing oil and gas production by 40 per cent and multiplying renewables investment ten-fold over the next decade.

Such plans make climatic sense and, in a world attempting to recover from the impacts of Covid-19, economic and societal sense. Numerous studies show clean energy creates more jobs and growth than gas and other fossil fuels.

Read more: Why climate change is too important to leave to green politics

Recent research demonstrates that, by the end of 2019, 3.3 million Americans worked in clean energy jobs, three times more than in fossil fuel jobs. Last year, nearly five times more jobs were added in clean energy in the US than in fossil fuels.

While Biden will continue to promote gas, renewables make the most sense for a global recovery, especially one aimed at creating a net zero emissions world. If the US and other major economies prove they are serious about getting to net zero by mid-century, the geopolitical pressure on countries such as Russia, Turkey and Brazil, whose current mantra is to ignore or largely deny climate change, should intensify.

With Biden at the helm of the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees celsius, as agreed under the Paris Agreement, increases. But success is far from given and the hard work must start now.

This article first appeared in an upcoming Spotlight supplement. To see our most recent editions, click here.

Philippa Nuttall Jones is editor-in-chief of Energy Monitor.

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