Climate change is upon us

Globe’s future health depends on how leaders of the largest economies — US and China — handle climate policies

Shahid Javed Burki October 05, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice president of the World Bank

As I write this article there are signs from all over the world that demonstrate that the feared climate change is upon us. Dozens are dead across the United States West Coast and Instagram is filled with grim images of orange skies produced by devastating fires around San Francisco. Fires also destroyed tens of thousands of acres of forestland in Australia. This summer equalled the highest reliably measured temperature in history. A temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in America’s Death Valley. This equalled the record set a couple of years ago in the city of Jacobabad in Pakistan’s Sindh desert. Unprecedented rainfall in Karachi brought a lot of misery to the citizens. Dozens have died. Record rainfall across vast areas of Africa has destroyed a quarter of Nigeria’s rice crop. These are just a few of the many “climate events” in the world that suggest that we are in a climate emergency.

The globe’s future health depends on how the leaders of the world’s two largest economies — the US and China — handle climate policies. President Donald Trump and his administration don’t accept the science that has convinced most experts around the world that we are heading towards what a headline in The Los Angeles Times recognised as “California’s Climate Apocalypse”. However, some in the oil industry have begun to adopt policies that might save the world from what at this time appears to be an unstoppable disaster. In August, BP became the first of oil super-majors to accept what it called the “new reality”. It announced plans to cut oil and gas production from 30% to 40% this decade and reallocate assets toward clean power.

The Donald Trump administration has focused on the short term rather than the medium and long term. The focus of economic policy has been on deregulation in order to encourage private enterprise to invest in the domestic economy. As the President said in the debate on September 29 with the Democratic presidential candidate, his policies have succeeded in bringing back tens of thousands of jobs from China and other countries in East Asia to which they had migrated during the eight years of his predecessor, Barack Obama. According to one analysis, President Trump has initiated the most aggressive deregulation in modern history. Courts in the country have been the only constraint on his approach to climate deregulation. According to a database kept by New York University’s nonpartisan Institute for Policy Integrity, the Environmental Protection Agency, challenged by those concerned by the agency’s reversal of the policies adopted during the Obama period, Trump has won only 13 cases in the courts. The EPA won on nine out of 47 cases while the Interior Department has won four out of 22 cases. The Trump administration’s overall win rate has been under 16% compared with win rates of about 70% for the Obama and Bush administrations.

Poor performance in the courts is one reason why Trump has focused on changing the ideological underpinning of the judiciary. Courts are increasingly telling the EPA and the Interior Department that their legal, scientific and economic analyses upholding rollbacks directly violate underlying laws. All of this will change if the Democrat, Joe Biden, wins the November election and moves into the White House. The reversal of the Trump approach to environmental regulations could be done fairly quickly by a Democratic administration.

The Trump administration’s foot dragging has brought China to the forefront of climate policies. For a long time, Beijing had been a laggard arguing that global warming was the result of the developed world’s aggressive move to grow their economies. They did this by using fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas. The developing world should not be punished for the misdeeds of rich countries. That approach was reversed by President Xi Jinping in his recorded speech delivered at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York as the institution celebrated its 75th birthday. China, the world’s largest consumer of hydrocarbons, announced an ambitious plan to cut its dependence on coal, oil and gas. Under the Paris climate accord reached in 2015, China pledged that its emissions of greenhouse would peak around 2030. At this time it produces 28% of the world’s emissions. Research has shown that carbon dioxide emissions from energy production, cement manufacture and other industrial uses were 4% higher in China than the year before. Beijing also granted more construction permits for coal-fired plants in the first six months of 2020 than it did each year in 2018 and 2019. But the Xi government has pledged to reverse the trend. China is well on its way to making a transition towards shifting the focus of production to renewable sources of energy.

The September 22 speech by President Xi Jinping moved up the Paris timetable by announcing that his country would reach “carbon neutrality” by 2060. This means that by that year, China’s net carbon emissions will reach zero. More than 60 other countries have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, a consensus deadline that scientists believe must be met for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding a climate catastrophe. Xi accepted this conclusion and put China in the lead. “Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature and go down the beaten path of extracting resources without investing in conservation, pursuing development at the expense of protection and exploiting resources without restoration,” he told the world delegates.

Xi’s indication of a new target made at the speech given virtually at the annual session of the UNGA did not come with detailed plans. These are likely to be included in the next five-year development plan that will guide public policymaking in the 2021-2025 period. Beijing is placing a lot of emphasis on renewable energy as the way to move forward. The country now dominates clean energy technology, producing more solar panels and wind turbines than any country in the world. It is also the world’s largest manufacturer of electric cars and buses. While Musk’s Tesla electric car continues to capture world headlines, it is China that is making the most progress in this filed.

President Donald Trump also had a recorded speech delivered at the UN. “The contrast between Xi’s speech and Trump’s speech is stark,” said Joanna Lewis, a Washington-based Georgetown University professor who follows China’s climate policies. “While Trump’s speech blames China for the world’s problems, Xi’s speech calls for global response and highlights China’s contributions.” If Biden captures the White House in this year’s presidential contest, China may have a partner in protecting the globe from a climate disaster. He has pledged to rejoin the Paris climate accord Barack Obama had worked hard to negotiate and promised to spend $2 trillion to slash emissions and address the effects of climate change. A Biden-Xi partnership will bring not only a cleaner and more liveable world, it will also extend the life span of our planet.


Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2020.

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