A US re-energised on climate change: what does it mean for the UK?
In the year the UK hosts the biggest climate summit since the Paris Agreement was created, the new Biden administration is set to retake the climate stage. Here, we explore what this means for the UK.
Climate can help rebuild the ‘special relationship’: Climate change is a key area of mutual interest for Joe Biden and Boris Johnson. With the UK hosting its largest-ever diplomatic summit, COP26 in November, the G7 before that, and Mr Biden planning an ad hoc ‘climate world summit’ within his first 100 days to up the ante on major-emitting economies, there is plenty to collaborate on.
“The inauguration of Joe Biden as US President is set to mark the beginning of a new, green transatlantic partnership”
— Connie Hedegaard, Chair of the Board, KR Foundation and former EU Commissioner for Climate Action
- Success for COP26 receives a boost: Mr Biden plans to re-join the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. Following the UK's move of 2019, the US will pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. In a dramatic global shift in the run-up to COP26, over two-thirds of the global economy is now under mid-century net zero targets, including the EU, Japan and Korea by 2050, and China by 2060. For a summary of countries with net zero targets, see our Net Zero Tracker map.
“2021 will be a critical year for climate action. Together with the bold commitments of the UK, EU and other leading nations, the Biden-Harris administration is poised to amplify global climate action and ensure a clean, sustainable, and just future for all”
— John Podesta, Founder and Chair of the Center for American Progress
- The US will be looking for UK leadership in the run-up to COP26: Mr Biden has appointed heavy-hitter former US Secretary of State John Kerry as his special climate envoy. France, as host of the seminal 2015 COP21, put a huge amount of diplomatic muscle into preparations under former Prime Minister Lauren Fabius. Is the UK government matching those levels of commitment? COP26 President Alok Sharma’s role is now full time, but there have also been calls for the PM and Foreign Secretary to be heavily involved (see also from the Institute for Government).
- The UK would likely benefit from US pressure on countries lagging behind: Australia and Brazil’s climate efforts are recognised as insufficient. This led to Australia’s PM being one of the few world leaders not given a speaking platform at December’s Climate Action Summit event. US diplomatic might could nudge these countries towards bolder commitments ahead of the COP summit - on cutting emissions, fulfilling financial pledges, and other issues.
- The UK, US and EU could come together to negotiate with China on climate change: Despite a backdrop of strained relations with China, the EU could ‘provide a bridge’ between the US and China on climate issues. But, given both its current antipathy to China and 'Brexit legacy' issues, how will the UK government get in the room?
- The UK needs US help to unlock financial flows: The hole in ‘climate finance’ required to support developing countries cut emissions and adapt to climate change, and to shore up the negotiations, is a major priority for UK diplomacy. Failure to address the funding challenges of developing nations, especially in light of the consequences of COVID-19, would be a major obstacle to a successful outcome at COP26. The US could help influence donor countries as well as the IMF and World Bank and other multilateral development banks.
- To be a credible host of COP26, the UK will need to be demonstrably on track to its own net zero target: Both sides of the Atlantic plan to ‘Build Back Better’ with climate action touted as a central plank of economic recovery plans. Mr Biden’s Climate Plan earmarks $2 trillion to fast-track clean jobs over the short-term and slash US emissions over the next 30 years. Democrat control of the House and the Senate will likely accelerate the clean energy transition. The UK Government’s ten point plan goes some way to putting the country on track for net zero, but gaps remain and further policy announcements will be expected this year. Measures such as the recently announced UK 2030 zero-emission vehicles sales commitment will help.
- A US-UK trade deal is likely to feature climate change prominently: With the UK seeking a free trade deal, Joe Biden’s Climate Plan pledge to ‘fully integrate climate change into [its] foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as [its] approach to trade’ acquires a specific significance. Post-Brexit the UK can also seek to bring climate ambition into future trade deals. Carbon border tax adjustments is also an area for potential collaboration. The issue has received attention in Democratic Party planning documents, and the EU is also considering the concept.
“The changed diplomatic picture in recent months, with not only an incoming U.S. administration committed to ambitious climate action, but also new carbon neutrality pledges from China, the EU and others, create new opportunities but also new responsibilities”
— David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary, and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
- An acceleration in global green growth: With bold commitments on climate-related investments and a specific commitment to decarbonise the US power grid by 2035 there is a clear message being sent to investors that clean power is in and fossil fuel companies have only a shrinking market to look forward to. Could this open up opportunities for British firms in the growing US offshore wind sector for example?
- Turning the key on transport: While Mr Biden has so far not taken California or the UK’s lead and introduced a fossil fuel-vehicle phase out date, he has pledged to create 500,000 EV charging stations nationwide, zero-emissions public transit for every city with over 100,000 residents and a ‘second great railroad revolution’. British electric vehicle firms could gain.
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