Carbon emissions: Can the US lead by example?

On Thursday — almost six months after Donald Trump, a hard denialist who doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate, officially pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement (condemning the world to climate catastrophe had he been re-elected) , newly elected president Joe Biden, who rejoined the agreement immediately as his first presidential decision, committed his country to halving its 2005 emissions levels by 2030 at an online meeting of 40 world leaders.

After China, the United States is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, so Biden’s pledge is more ambitious than that signed by Barack Obama a decade ago, which aimed at a reduction of between 26% and 28% by 2025, and is in line with the objectives set by the Paris Agreement, which aims for a reduction to practically zero by 2050. The idea, after the passage through the White House of a Donald Trump who, in addition to trying to get out of the agreement, rolled back most environmental and emissions legislation, is to regain legitimacy and prestige within the international community, as well as to oblige countries such as China, India and other major emitters to play their part.

The problem with emission reduction targets for developing countries is that they are being asked to do what rich countries refused to do half a century ago: stop using fossil fuels. Little wonder that the emerging economies are now claiming their right to use coal, oil and gas to catch up, and are resisting the reduction targets they see as being imposed on them by the wealthy nations.

But we now know that if we maintain emissions at current levels, human life on the planet will cease to be viable. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we also know that technology now offers us more than enough resources to meet all our needs sustainably with less impact on the environment. Solar energy is the most obvious case: the cost of solar panels and batteries has fallen so much that it is now the cheapest way to produce electricity. Decarbonizing the economy is an imperative and can no longer be seen in terms of the supposed right of some to pollute, because that would lead to disaster for everyone.

Is the US commitment sufficient, considering its contribution to creating the climate emergency? No, but it’s a good start, and in addition, it becomes a guarantor of compliance with the country’s ambitious infrastructure plan, the only possibility for meeting these targets. It’s also a way to regain leadership of an issue that without exaggeration can be described as existential. For the moment, the United Kingdom has committed to a 78% reduction from 1990 levels by 2035, Japan to a 46% reduction from 2013 levels by 2030, and the European Union to cut its current emissions by 55% by 2030. If other countries are able to live up to this and set similar or even more ambitious targets, we will at least be heading in the right direction.