For those who believe in climate change science and the global energy transition needed to avert the most cataclysmic impacts of this rapidly heating planet of ours, the emotion felt in the immediate aftermath of Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the US presidential election might be deconstructed as a confusion of relief and hope — an easing of existential dread.
Donald Trump’s departure from the White House, when it comes, could be like the end of a long total eclipse over the US, a period to be looked back upon as a benighted four years in its history, when a cult of personality built for itself a self-profiting labyrinth of crime, corruption and capitalist engorgement founded on an everchanging set of “alternative facts”.
What this means for the renewables revolution there cannot be overestimated. Building a zero-carbon US power sector by 2035 backed by $2trn in government funding, as Biden plans, with net-zero emissions by mid-century, would supercharge the wind, solar and battery sectors that are coming through the Covid pandemic setting records for construction of new plant, and underwrite billions of dollars of investment in clean-energy supply chains.
State and regional economies would undergo a post-Covid revival and, ultimately, not least in sectors like offshore wind, millions of jobs would be created. Trump’s anti-renewables rhetoric would be consigned to a historical footnote.
Statements from US renewables industry bodies cheering Biden’s win as heralding “a cleaner and more prosperous energy future” were on the wires minutes after the election was called in his favour.
Globally, in the first year of a decade that International Energy Agency chief Fatih Birol called “pivotal” to meeting the Paris Agreement’s temperature-limiting target, the prospect of a Biden administration — set to re-sign the 2015 accord once he is inaugurated — gives a flutter of optimism that this could mark the start of a fundamental renewal of coordinated international climate action.
Biden’s climate change programme, according to analysis by Climate Action Tracker, would ease global heating by about 0.1°C. Add it to the ambitious targets pledged by China, the EU, the UK, Japan and South Korea, and the research group said the goals of Paris would be “within striking distance” with renewables’ outcompeting fossils on price and Peak Oil having been passed earlier this year.
Lurking behind all this, however, is a shadow lengthening by the minute. The chance to put Covid stimulus finance to work in accelerating the shift to clean energy is going begging, as shown in recent analysis of data from think-tank Energy Policy Tracker, which found 54% of the more than $400bn first spent by governments around the world on recovery aid this year has gone to fossil fuel producers — as boreal forest burns, floods deluge coastal mega-cities and Arctic sea ice melts at unprecedented speed.
Nations mapping a new course in the run-up to the delayed UN COP26 summit next year will be crucial.
As Biden said in his victory speech: “We stand again at an inflection point.” He was talking about Americans looking past a volatile, polarised era of Trump-led governance towards a country reunified in “prosperity and purpose”, but the statement is no less true for a world hurtling towards an environmental point of no return.
· Darius Snieckus is Editor-in-Chief of Recharge