Biden’s new climate policy – Is the US back alongside the EU in global energy policy?

The U.S. has recently declared itself a climate champion again, a role it last claimed for itself as clearly in the 1980s, and rightly so at the time. But one thing is clear: Joe Biden is clearly setting new priorities. At his two-day summit with world leaders, he accomplished far more than the UN did in all of last year.

To make the context clear, it helps to look at the background: in December 2019, the European Commission decided on the big „European Green Deal“. By 2050, net emissions of greenhouse gases within the European Union are to be reduced to zero. The residual amounts of CO2 that will then still be emitted by humans must be offset by measures such as CO2 storage and reforestation. This would make Europe the first ever climate-neutral continent. To achieve this goal, by 2030 CO2 emissions are to be reduced by 55 percent compared with the base year 1990 – a very ambitious undertaking. To this end, the EU wants to invest around one trillion euros within the decade of the 2020s. The EU Parliament had actually wanted even more: a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases and a more stringent calculation method. There was a long dispute about whether and to what extent the quantities of carbon dioxide stored by forests, plants and soils should be included. But in April 2021, the targets were finally enshrined in law.15 Climate experts, are to accompany the implementation of the targets.

Just a few months after the EU Commission originally announced its plans, China followed suit, announcing its intention to reach the target by 2060. And U.S. President Joe Biden, who took office in January 2021, now also wants to bring his country quickly onto this course. He even wants to make climate policy the center of his foreign policy and massively restrict government subsidies for fossil fuels. Thus, at the Virtual Global Energy Conference at the end of April 2021, he announced that the United States will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030. This, in turn, had other countries follow suit: At the climate summit that ended on April 23, 2021, several other countries announced they would further increase their climate targets:

  • Canada raised its CO2 reduction targets from 30 to 40 to 45 percent for 2030 compared to 2005.
  • China now held out the prospect of reducing its coal consumption from 2025 onwards.
  • Japan now plans to reduce its CO2 emissions by 46 percent by 2030 compared to 2013, up from just 26 percent previously.
  • The UK had even jumped ahead with the announcement of a 78 percent CO2 reduction by 2035.

The European initiative has thus become a global dynamic. But unlike in Europe, this has yet to be enshrined in law. So far, these are all just announcements. But hey can be implemented with maximal effects if, among other things, the following two general problems are solved:

  • 40 percent of the energy consumed in Europe is used to heat buildings; four-fifths of this is used for heating. However, the thermal insulation of old buildings is making only slow progress. If the rate of renovation does not increase significantly, it will take another hundred years to get heat loss from poorly insulated buildings under control, despite all the efforts of recent decades.
  • There is still a lack of cross-state cooperation. For example, a European electricity interconnection would be a major step toward baseload capability for wind and solar power. Connecting the wind-rich regions of northern Scandinavia, the North Atlantic/North Sea and the Balkans, and the sun-rich regions of southern Europe by means of high-voltage direct current lines would significantly reduce uncertainties in the availability of wind and solar energy.

The comparison of the major powers Europe, China, and the USA shows that Europe and China have been willing and able to tackle the climate problem in recent years- and that their economies do not appear to be suffering any damage in the face of this determination. U.S. innovation in the field of renewable energy, on the other hand, may have fallen behind as a result of long years of ignorance. No wonder Biden is now pushing climate policy so hard. The country’s notoriously poor infrastructure, neglected for decades, only exacerbates the problems. In a country with great distances, the structural failures contribute to the competitive disadvantage. This is precisely what Joe Biden now wants to address. But while China, also a large country, has expanded its rail system to a breathtaking degree in the last 20 years, and meanwhile one can cover the distance of more than 1300 km between Beijing and Shanghai in 4h30min by train, there is not even a direct train connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and with changing trains, a traveler needs almost 13 hours by train for the approx. 600 km distance, less than half of the one between Beijing and Shanghai. It remains to be seen whether the USA will be able to catch up with the backlog caused by past failures and ommissions. Biden’s problem will be the opposition from Senate Republicans. If the rule still applies that 60 votes are needed to pass the necessary legislation, quite a few Republicans will have to support Biden’s package. That seems highly unlikely, however.

With the exception of the Obama years, U.S. national climate policy has been driven almost exclusively by a right-wing conservative ideology for forty years. It remains to be seen, and at the same time strongly hoped, whether this will now change significantly.

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