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The US Will Never Be A Climate Leader: Here's Why
It has nothing to do with oil companies, Republicans, Trump or Biden.
It’s no secret that Biden is trying to get the USA back on track to meet its climate targets after the Trump administration and become a global climate leader. Not only will this effort help the US become more resilient to the impeding climate disaster and crushing emissions limits, but it will also enable them to retain their top seat on the international political table. However, the US has a devastating Achilles heel stopping them from reaching this position, and if nothing is done to address it, it will threaten their hard-earned spot as a keystone superpower. This weakness isn’t the US’s vast oil industry, its hardline version of capitalism, or the fact that one side of its political spectrum is getting more anti-climate change action and anti-science. Instead, it stems from the US’s inability to hold its hands up. Let me explain.
This flaw was clearly on display during John Kerry’s (the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate) visit to China. The US and China are the world’s biggest polluters, collectively emitting 40% of humanity’s emissions. Over the past few years, the two have worked remarkably well together to advance climate action, having agreed to a decade of bilateral climate work aimed at reducing methane emissions, a potent climate pollutant; combating deforestation; and increasing renewable energy deployment. As such, they took a joint lead in spearheading the world to net-zero.
But, all of this ended last August, when tensions between the two over Taiwan’s independence skyrocketed, ruining diplomatic relations and derailing this cooperative climate movement.
Kerry’s recent trip to China was aimed at rekindling this cooperation. But despite him and his Chinese counterpart agreeing on many actions that need to be taken to save the planet, they couldn’t reach any formal decision. Why? Well, it is all down to the US’s hypocrisy.
A week before his visit to China, Kerry was being questioned by Congress. Republican Brian Mass asked Kerry if he was “planning to commit America to climate reparations”, adding the US would have to “pay some other country because they had a flood, or they had a hurricane”. Kerry quickly rebutted, “No. Under no circumstances.” He even went as far as to jokingly ask Matt to put an exclamation point against it as Mast wrote his answer down. Alden Meyer, a veteran Washington-DC-based climate campaigner and policy analyst at climate think-tank E3G, told Climate Home that the US has “always rejected any suggestion of liability or that it must provide compensation for its historical emissions.”
This is quite shocking when you look at the data. You see, the US has emitted the most carbon emissions to date of any country by a long way, accounting for a quarter of all historical carbon emissions. This is twice China’s total historical emissions, which is the second-largest emitter of carbon to date. What’s more, modern climate science, weather models and data analysis tell us that extreme weather events, like the current insane heatwave gripping Europe, are made far more likely by our historical carbon emissions. So surely, the US should be liable for some of these damages and pay reparations? If this was damage done by other technology, such as nuclear incidents, then such reparations would be expected. Indeed, there is a precedent for the US paying such nuclear reparations, as they did with the castle bravo atomic test. So why not with carbon emissions, which are arguably more damaging?
Well, that question boils down to one thing, the economy. As it always does…
I wrote about this recently, but I will quickly recap. Back in the early 20th century, the US’s infrastructure, quality of life and economy boomed! As the economy was intrinsically linked to carbon emissions (more on that later), this monumental shift not only catapulted the US to the world leader it is today but also released a vast amount of carbon dioxide. You can see this in the graph below.
The world took notice of the US’s sacrifice of environmental health for their own economic gains, and as early as the 70s, there have been international calls for the US to pay reparations for their actions to create a more equitable global economy. In other words, countries that suffer from the US’s environmental damage can’t grow their economy because of the damage and therefore want the US to pay for the damage they caused to give them the ability to grow. However, the US has always firmly avoided calls for these reparations, as it would lead to them being held liable for their damage. If you want to find out more about that, then read my article on it here.
But China’s development happened far later than the US’s. In fact, it only really started in 1978. This is why their historical carbon emissions are so damn low compared to the US, as for 100-odd years, they had a fraction of the emissions of the US. Post 1978, China had similar economic, industrial and technological growth as the US had in the early 20th century. In fact, unlike the US, this rocket-ship growth is still ongoing for China, as you can see from the graph below.
You may notice a difference between these two graphs. From around 2015 onwards, the US’s carbon emissions dropped, and China’s keeps increasing. This isn’t because the US economy shrunk; it was, in fact, because the US has now broken the link between the economy and emissions. Many countries around the world have been able to do this; this is because their population growth has started to drop, their energy infrastructure and industrial growth have also started to drop, and they can now focus their efforts on increasing efficiency in the economy and adopting new clean technology.
So why hasn’t China done this? Well, they can’t!
You don’t get the kind of record economic growth that China has gained over the past 50 years without some risk. And boy, does China have a risky economy! Remember in 2008 when it turned out the banks had given out too many mortgages to home buyers who couldn’t afford them? Well, China has been doing something similar for decades to fund its rapid industrial, infrastructural and economic expansion.
For years, China has invested around 45% of its GDP in property and infrastructure. This has enabled their economy to grow an average of 10% year-on-year since 1978, as more property and infrastructure enable more industry and, therefore, economic expansion. This expansion has had a massive effect over the past 15 years, as the average family income has quadrupled in that time. This economic expansion is now so rapid that analysts now predict that China’s GDP will exceed the US’s in as little as 20 years.
This repeated heavy investment in expanding infrastructure only works if the economy is rapidly growing, and luckily China still has plenty of wiggle room to grow into. But, China’s property market is starting to falter for many, various and complex reasons. For example, property sales in China fell by up to 30% earlier this year! This has put severe pressure on their economy, as investments aren’t being paid for, risking a massive recession.
As such, China can’t afford to spend the time to optimise its carbon emissions. It might now be a developed country, but it isn’t a mature one yet like the US or the EU. As such, it needs to double down and focus on growth. Otherwise, the quality of life for its people will tank.
This is why, despite China having the largest amount of deployed renewable energy in the world, its economy is still intrinsically linked it its carbon emissions. Take that renewable energy, for example; despite using more renewable energy than the rest of the planet combined, it still needs to build and expand its coal power industry to keep up with rising energy demands.
So, with all of this in mind, let’s go back to Kerry’s trip to China.
The US and Kerry have publicly refused to acknowledge climate liability, even though the only reason the US is a world power is because of its enormous historical emissions. China is trying to replicate this growth and is still in the midst of its economic development. This means that when the US wants to crack down on Chinese environmental impact, it comes across as massively hypocritical. Not only that, but it can be seen as an underhand, inequitable tactic to slow Chinese economic development to ensure the US stays on top. What’s more, the US trying to hold China to the same emissions standards as itself could actually hamper its ability to get over the emissions hump and break the link between emissions and the economy. Which, for a country the size of China, could mean it emits more overall emissions in the future than if they emit more now to get over this hump.
This is why the US can’t become a climate leader. It is trying to hold countries to account for the emissions they are emitting by growing their economy without admitting liability for the historic emissions it caused to become what it is today.
There is one simple solution to this. Admit liability. If the US started the process of actually taking responsibility for the damage it has done (an environmental damage fund as agreed at COP27 is not admitting liability, but a poor effort to pay off the claimants) and helping those affected by the climate damage it helped create, then it could hold other countries accountable. It would also beckon other developed nations like the EU, ECRAustralia and Japan to do the same, leading to a more economical and environmentally equitable world. This approach would also ensure that the US stays as a world leader, as it would put even more pressure on China’s current rampant emissions and, therefore, potentially slow their growth.
But I doubt the US will do this. There is too much anti-science and anti-climate change action within its politics. What’s more, the US is still too focused on its own internal issues to make a global issue like climate change its primary focus. Something significant would have to change for the US not to act like the spoilt brat it is on the international scene. As such, it is destined to slip behind and fail to become the world leader it wants to be. After all, if you can’t kick China into touch over emissions, how can you expect other nations to take your moves as seriously as they once did?
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