Al Gore is the famous what-if of US climate politics, given the controversial near miss that was the presidential election of 2000, combined with his subsequent activism. His film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, won two Academy Awards, and the man himself won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize (along with the IPCC) for his efforts to wake the world up to climate change.
But current Secretary of State John Kerry, the second contender to lose a presidential election to George W Bush, has started to nudge Gore out of the climate action spotlight. The first piece of policy guidance Kerry issued to the State Department and its worldwide network of diplomats instructed them to make climate change a diplomatic priority. He told them:
“We’re talking about the future of our earth and of humanity. We need to elevate the environment in everything we do. There’s nothing I’m more proud of than when we send one of our diplomats somewhere to really get out in the field and engage, to solve a problem, and to make something happen. I want all of you to feel empowered to think and operate that way on climate change.”
A presidential legacy
Kerry’s boss has been lending a hand, too. While President Obama’s first term was marred by the disappointment of failing to pass climate legislation, his second term has seen a fierce effort to use every means the executive branch possesses to “get to work” (as he puts it) on climate. The climax of this effort addresses “carbon pollution” from power plants: the administration first introduced emissions standards for new power plants, and is now immersed in the more difficult challenge of forcing existing power plants to reduce their emissions.
Strange as it may sound to seasoned spectators of the climate scene, the US is starting to demonstrate leadership. Obama wants climate action to be a legacy of his presidency. And even the UK’s leading light is dimming slightly in comparison. While President Obama has made at least three major speeches on climate since 2010 (the year Prime Minister Cameron was elected), the UK leader kept ominously quiet on the matter until only a month ago, when he delivered a four minute address to a heads of state meeting in New York.
UK is being embarrassed on coal
On coal, the picture is still more embarrassing. Britain announced a moratorium on new unabated coal-fired power plants, but parliament has explicitly voted not to limit emissions on existing power plants. In fact, with the new capacity mechanism, the UK might end up paying coal plants up to £2.2 billion to provide electricity when demand is high. These payments go against the recent New Climate Economy report’s recommendation to retire existing unabated coal plants.
All this is not to belittle the serious efforts the UK has made to tackle the causes of climate change. The 2008 Climate Change Act was the first piece of legislation in the world to set legally binding greenhouse gas emission targets, committing Britain to reduce emissions 80 per cent by 2050. It was ambitious and visionary and was passed with cross-party support. The US, on the other hand, has no emissions target for 2050. Its 2020 target looks alright at first sight at 17 per cent, admittedly still inferior to the UK’s 34 per cent, but the US target is set against a 2005 baseline. If you convert that to a 1990 baseline like the UK’s, the US target is diminished to a paltry three per cent reduction.
Targets mean nothing if they are not matched by action, of course, and the UK has a good record on that front as well. The average UK resident’s carbon footprint in 2013 was 8.10 tonnes of CO2, far smaller than their US counterpart’s 18.74 tonnes. And while US per capita emissions have decreased 17 per cent since 1975, the UK’s have fallen by 29 per cent.
The UK has led the way
But rather than pointing fingers, we should look for opportunities created by the US’s nascent climate leadership. As we argue in our new infographic, the UK shouldn’t be overly alarmed at finding an upstart US in the climate diplomacy game. A sober analysis shows that the US, a global superpower, is now backing the UK’s longstanding climate strategy. Yes, they’re deplorably late to the party, and yes, they’ll nonetheless probably claim all the credit if a global deal is made in Paris next year. But as a result of them arriving at the party, there’s a chance a global deal might actually emerge.
The risk is a G2 stitch-up, ie an agreement forged by the US and China, with the EU nowhere to be seen at the only negotiating table that matters, and the rest of the world expected to fall into line. To minimise that risk, the UK needs to stay relevant, playing a constructive role in the EU, keeping ambition high, pushing on with domestic decarbonisation and building international momentum using its network of climate attachés. It was encouraging to see the new foreign minister Philip Hammond making a joint speech with Kerry earlier this month. It’s time to dispel the fashionable pessimism that climate diplomacy will never get anywhere. The UK, the US, and allies the world over, should all “get to work”, and secure a global deal on climate change.
Download our infographic Climate leadership: UK and US compared