The United States Must Give Pride of Place to Global Climate Leadership

By Johannes Urpelainen - 30 October 2020
The United States Must Give Pride of Place to Global Climate Leadership

Johannes Urpelainen calls on the winner of the US elections to commit to leading efforts to tackle climate change.

Joe Biden’s climate change and environmental justice plan calls for a $2 trillion investment in low-carbon infrastructure. This ambitious plan can support global efforts to halt climate change, but only if the United States re-establishes its global leadership. Domestic action, no matter how ambitious, will not be enough unless it changes the global economics and politics of climate change.

Climate change is a global problem. In 2019, the United States accounted for only 14% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Even if the United States fully decarbonized within a decade – an impossibility – it would be enough to limit global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Achieving this goal requires rapid emissions reductions across all major emitters, from China and India to Brazil and Russia.

In this situation, the United States must focus on catalyzing global change. The goal of U.S. climate policy should not be limited to domestic decarbonization. Catalyzing emissions reductions in other countries is necessary for success.

To achieve this goal, the next U.S. administration should commit to three principles. First, the United States must lead by example. If the United States fails to reduce its own emissions, it cannot expect other major emitters to take action. The average American produced 16.6 tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in 2019. With the average Chinese producing only seven tons and the average Indian below two tons, these countries will not accelerate their climate policies without a firm U.S. commitment.

Second, the United States must support innovation in low-carbon technology. The past three decades of climate policy show that governments are reluctant to punish producers and consumers for carbon dioxide emissions. The most important advances in climate policy, such as renewable power and electric vehicles, stem from government-supported technology innovation.

This technology must be made available to emerging countries at a low cost. If U.S. companies develop advanced clean technology and then refuse to share it, poorer countries will not adopt. The U.S. government must create robust incentives for global technology transfer and diffusion.

Finally, the United States must create incentives for emerging countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. To encourage cooperation, these incentives should be more carrots than sticks. Emerging economies will not budge just because wealthy slap carbon tariffs on them. Instead, punitive measures would generate hostility and cause a breakdown of cooperation.

The two most effective incentives are low-carbon finance and technology transfer. The U.S. Development Finance Corporation should prioritize financing of clean energy projects in emerging countries, with concessional interest rates for countries that make progress on climate policy. Similarly, the Department of Energy and other government agencies should subsidize technology transfer in countries that commit to and make progress on climate policy.

These three principles – lead by example, invest in low-carbon technology, and create incentives for global cooperation – can re-establish U.S. climate leadership. By committing to them, the United States can turn a corner in the global effort to stop climate disruption.



Johannes Urpelainen is the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor and Director of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP).

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

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