This month the US Democrats wrapped up polling in Pennsylvania, a north-east industrial state that four years ago went to Donald Trump by 44,000 votes. Among other things the polling found that voters didn’t like Trump’s deregulation of methane. Voters supported a phasing out of fossil fuels.
This is happy news for Democrats given that Biden has already committed to impose “aggressive new methane limits” on gas and oil operations by presidential executive action on day one of his presidency. This was set out in his clean energy and environmental justice plan. It embraces decarbonisation as part of an economic rebuild.
During the primaries he spoke about $1.7tn over 10 years. But in a 14 July landmark speech he crammed $2tn into a mere four years, pitched in terms of more “high-paying union jobs” generated in a swiftly decarbonising economy.
Canberra needs to catch up with this because it threatens to leave Australia at odds with an American administration defining itself through climate diplomacy, something Biden signalled with a Foreign Affairs article in March.
Biden is pledging no carbon at all in the power network by 2035 – phasing coal and gas out of the system rapidly – and the hugely ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050.
As one of his advisors told me: “Oil and gas people want to pretend he is their friend. But look at his speech. It’s all about accelerating the pace to zero carbon energy and electrification of transport.”
He went on to say: “If you want zero carbon power by 2035 you are pushing a lot of gas out of the system.”
There is nowhere in Biden’s campaign material from the primaries, his Foreign Affairs article or his landmark environment speech in July any rhetoric about gas as a bridging fuel.
His adviser says he is not going to be using “bridging fuel” language. This alone draws a line with Australia and the enthusiasm for gas of the prime minister and his energy minister and of the national Covid-19 Coordination Commission, advised by Andrew Liveris, which is reportedly telling Canberra to massively invest in gas.
Biden’s policy even rules out donations from gas corporations and executives.
Biden will, however, bring joy to some on the right in Australia: he will protect America’s existing nuclear fleet. He promises to support development of small, modular nuclear reactors, although this notion has been around so long without signs of the promised nuclear renaissance it almost rivals carbon capture and storage (CCS) as sound theory that stubbornly resists commercial realisation.
Carbon tariffs will figure in the Biden agenda.
They appeal to the trade-sceptics in the party who need to hold their working class base as well as to supporters of the Green New Deal. They provide an opportunity to wave a stick at China and India for producing cheap exports with profligate carbon.
Such “border adjustment mechanisms” were part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act which passed the House of Representatives in 2009 but failed in the Senate. Biden will likely recruit Canada and then begin negotiations with the EU and UK, with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, having publicly supported carbon tariffs.
It implies the US leading a pro-climate block. Two former Republican secretaries of state, James A Baker III and George P Shultz, called this year for a US-led climate alliance. They also urged a “carbon customs alliance” to take in Japan, Asean and South Korea to press China and India.
Their joint article didn’t mention us.
Where might we be seen?
Democrats will easily be reminded our prime minister stood in parliament to hold aloft a block of coal. Our bushfire crisis was invoked by senior Democrat adviser John Podesta to open his own Foreign Affairs article on “A Foreign Policy for the Climate” in June. The Podesta article mentioned Japan and New Zealand as natural partners but not Australia.
In fact Australia may be sailing perilously close to being cast by Biden’s team with other climate resisters Brazil and Saudi Arabia, and with mega polluter China as well.
Yet even China’s status as coal-fired enthusiast could be altered by the new dynamic of climate diplomacy.
At present China has embraced coal-fired power plant construction as part of its economic revival. But this coal “snapback” can be overtaken by the process of the next five-year plan hauling China’s policies back to nuclear and renewables.
Biden will make huge play castigating China’s funding of coal-fired activity in its Belt and Road Initiative. But it would be relatively easy for China to switch to renewables under the BRI – that is, if both superpowers want to work up collaboration on climate policy to balance the competition that will dominate their relationship on technology, cyber and geostrategy.
All the more reason for Australia to be ready for Biden on climate.
That is, if such a devoted ally wants to be in the next president’s climate club.
o Bob Carr is a former premier of New South Wales and foreign affairs minister of Australia. He is professor of business and climate change at University of Technology, Sydney