Real change or greenwashed half-measures?
After four years of rabid climate denialism under former president Donald Trump, newly elected Joe Biden is promising to restore America’s position in the global fight against climate change.
Apart from re-joining the Paris Climate Accord, his platform includes a $2 trillion ‘green economic stimulus’, net-zero emissions by 2050 and increased legal actions against environmental polluters.
To climate-conscious Americans, Biden’s proposals represent a much-needed breath of fresh air following the environmental misdoings of the past administration.
And yet, while this may be a step in the right direction, there are several reasons to keep our optimism in check.
Biden’s more ambitious climate proposals hinge, above all, on securing legislative power. Unfortunately, while Democrats have maintained a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, the elusive “blue wave” has failed to materialize. That is, control over the senate remains contested with Republicans in a slight lead in the decisive Georgia Senate runoff, according to latest polls.
Hence, regardless of the final seat count, Biden will face a powerful Republican opposition in congress with a proven track-record of shooting down pro-environment bills. Under such circumstances, passing sweeping (and lasting) climate legislation will prove remarkably difficult.
The elephant in the room: Fossil Fuel Production
Apart from such political obstacles, critics have also expressed concern over the contents of Biden’s agenda.
For instance, recent evidence suggests that merely restricting fossil fuel consumption won’t avert a climate catastrophe — we need to tackle the supply-side as well. The latter is especially problematic for the U.S. which remains the world’s largest producer of both petroleum and natural gas — with serious adverse effects for the environment.
Unfortunately, Biden’s platform fails to make any commitments to stop fossil fuel extraction. Instead, it only calls for the elimination of subsidies and the cutting of methane leaks — dangerously modest measures in the face of an urgent climate crisis.
This soft stance on fossil fuels is also reflected in the relaxed response of the oil industry to Biden’s presidency. Rene Santos of S&P Global Platts, for example, was recently quoted saying that there won’t be “something radical unless […] the more liberal side of the Democratic Party gets a lot of influence”.
Rather than advocating for the end of fossil fuel extraction, Democrats are pushing nifty technological fixes. Most notably, they have pinned their hopes on so-called carbon-capture and storage (CCS) — a technology that, after more than 15 years of development, has yet to deliver on its rosy promises.
Indeed, while CCS does work (apart from concerns about CO2 leakage), the real challenge lies in scaling it up fast enough to make a difference. Unfortunately, carbon capture plants require large upfront investments, keeping the technology prohibitively expensive (so far).
Of course, things may change if Biden follows through on his plans of “far-reaching investments” in the sector of negative emission technologies. However, it remains to be seen whether this would accelerate development and implementation fast enough to avert ecological calamities.
In the meantime, it might be better to avoid placing our faith in a technological silver bullet.
Biden’s climate plan represents a tentative first step in the right direction. Nonetheless, there are several criticisms to be levelled against it — from its soft stance on fossil fuel production to an over reliance on as-yet unproven carbon capture (as well as its aversion towards a fracking ban and lack of international plan).
Still, we can safely say that Biden’s climate agenda is already better than the wilful science-denial of the Trump administration.
But will it be enough?