The view that the US has been hypocritical in its climate action has been held by many for years, in shifting the blame and the focus on the historical cost and baggage of climate impact on the US, and risks bypassing the larger picture and reality at hand for the present.
Global action for climate must be collective in nature, with the need for self-responsibility and fair incentivization cycle that is driven by self-awareness and joint responsibility. By going for the US scalp, and with persistent lopsided calls for it to own up for past cumulated and historical record of emissions, the big picture and the reality at hand are bypassed. It remains an easy scapegoat for other players and countries to pin their blame on, and to cast the supposed unfairness that compels them to do more.
This has given rise to further complacency and an excuse in lowering their equal climate commitment. For certain countries, this will be used as the ultimate pretext for the continuous reliance and harping for the US to do the heaviest lifting, also as a convenient and strategic approach in bolstering their geopolitical advantage in power race and progress.
While the US has been called out for being the cumulative biggest emitter, a worrying trend over the past years of growing emission by others has been sidelined.
China emits more greenhouse gases than the entire developed world combined, according to the research by Rhodium Group, which says China emitted 27% of the world’s greenhouse gases in 2019. The US was second at 11% while India was third with 6.6% of emissions. China’s emissions more than tripled over the previous three decades, where it is heavily reliant on coal power. The country is currently running 1,058 coal plants – more than half the world’s capacity.
While all countries face problems getting their emissions down, China is facing the biggest challenge. Per capita, China’s emissions are about half of the US, but its huge 1.4 billion population and explosive economic growth have pushed it way ahead of any other country in its overall emissions. China became the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2006 and is now responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.
China’s carbon emissions are vast and growing, dwarfing those of other countries. Experts agree that without big reductions in China’s emissions, the world cannot win the fight against climate change. Getting China’s emissions down is achievable, according to many experts, but will require a radical shift. Coal has been the country’s main source of energy for decades. President Xi says China will “phase down” coal use from 2026 and will not build new coal-fired projects abroad but some governments have pointed out the inadequacy in that measure alone.
Researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing say China will need to stop using coal entirely for generating electricity by 2050, to be replaced by nuclear and renewable energy production. Notwithstanding, far from shutting down coal-fired power stations, China is currently building new ones at more than 60 locations across the country, with many sites having more than one plant. In 2020, US greenhouse gas emissions totalled 5,981 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, representing a 7 percent decrease since 1990 and a 20 percent decrease since 2005. During the period from 1990 to 2020, emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, decreased by 8 percent for the US.
Methane emissions decreased by 17 percent, and nitrous oxide emissions decreased by 5 percent. US greenhouse gas emissions decreased from 2019 to 2020 by 9 percent. The decline reflects the combined impact of long-term trends in many factors, including technological changes including energy efficiency, and the carbon intensity of energy fuel choices.
China is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide gas in the world, with 10,668 million metric tons emitted in 2020. About 55% of the total energy generated by China in 2021 came from coal alone. The US is at a distant second with 4,713 million metric tons of total carbon dioxide emissions in 2020. In 2021, China again remained on top, accounting for nearly 31 percent of the global emissions. The US remains at a distant second at 13.5%.
China is still the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and it needs also to pay a fair share of commitment, a view espoused by former UK prime minister Gordon Brown. Just by capitalizing on America and Europe to shoulder the primary burden of reparation and loss and damage, without clear, credible and consistent contributions by China, will only prolong the current trap.
To achieve the 2060 carbon neutrality pledge made by President Xi Jinping, China faces a Herculean challenge, where a total of $163 billion will have to be spent annually on renewable energy and other decarbonization technologies. That figure is close to double the $91 billion invested in 2019 and amounts to $6.5 trillion over four decades.
Beijing’s reversion to fossil fuel to counter energy shortages that had crippled factories across the country were a signal and precursor of how China might respond to the conflicting interests of economic growth and decarbonization goals. China’s climate challenge would be complicated by mass urbanization and how it would manage the decline of the sprawling fossil fuels industry. Questions also remain as to how President Xi will balance the needs for his Chinese Rejuvenation dream and maintaining Beijing’s geopolitical edge without compromising on its green agenda at the same time.
The US, albeit facing growing geopolitical challenges and threats to its global power primacy, will need to contend with a growing list of difficulties while simultaneously redoubling its focus on the green and sustainable agenda.
In an all of the nation approach, every sector of the economy in the US is utilized to spur innovation-led climate action that can also unleash new economic opportunities that will be parallel to the equal importance of ensuring a globally acceptable level of the right to a clean and sustainable environment. Environment justice remains paramount, and this demands for a collective approach and measure from every country, in a fair and proportionate spectrum.
The United States has set a goal to reach 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. President Biden has rejoined the Paris Agreement and set a course for the United States to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad, reaching net zero emissions economy-wide no later than 2050. A whole-of-government process as part of re-entering the Paris Agreement has seen the establishment of the National Climate Task Force to establish a new emission target for 2030.
Investment in new technologies to reduce emissions has been further incentivised, and support for carbon capture has been gaining new traction under the Biden administration. America’s procurement power to support early markets for low and zero-carbon industrial goods has also enabled the foundational push for a regional and global transition to this new move. It has also pledged to reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases, including methane, hydrofluorocarbons and other potent short-lived climate pollutants, which will deliver swift climate positive implications.
The fiscal risk of climate change is immense and America has been made to be self aware of this, through several thorough analyses by the Network for Greening the Financial System, one of which has been estimated to reduce the US GDP by 3 to 10 percent by the end of the century. Another estimation highlighted that up to $2 trillion per year will be the cost of climate impact and related disasters should no real action be taken. As a result of this, and as a continuing effort to put focus and emphasis on climate actions, the US is compelled to act not only because of its global responsibility, but also to fulfil the urgent need of internal resilience.
The President’s Budget for fiscal year 2023 will be projected to invest up to $44.9 billion to tackle the climate crisis, an increase of nearly 60 percent as compared to 2021. More than $7 billion is allocated to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector and over $3 billion in the transportation sector.
The $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021, in which $7.5 billion for a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging stations and $65 billion to update power lines have been outlined, with the potential to improve CO2 emissions in the United States.
The Inflation Reduction Act, that provides $370 billion to enhance capacities in green energy including wind and solar, sparked the needed stepping stone for future long-term reliability and resilience in responsible and sustainable energy management, although America has better and easier options to choose for short term gains to bolster its competitive edge by relying more on conventional fossil energy. It signals real intent to reduce long-term emission, and that it will have positive collective chain effects on global emission on average, with predictable and consistent reduction in emission rate from the US.
The goals for climate action cannot be attained, with the constant and unilateral harping on the easy target, with the aim to compel it to take the biggest share of the burden and to admit its shortcomings. This will create further spiralling of a new “interest dilemma”, with decreased trust and common benefits. Unfair and selective targeting of the easiest will not solve current and future problems, and it will need a rational, fair and transparent approach in bolstering the efficacy of joint cooperation, spill-over effects and collective responsibility.
[Photo by Matthias Böckel, via Pixabay]
*Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.