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2020 U.S. presidential race: the race to save the environment?

By Nahidah Khan BA Development Studies and Politics

On 3 November 2020, the USA is due to hold its Presidential Election. When coupled with the following 24 hours, an already consequential event transforms into one with environmental implications. The US is set to formally exit the Paris Agreement on 4 November 2020 after a one-year withdrawal process. The aforementioned international agreement aims to combat climate change through its target to limit global warming to below 2oC. An analysis by the UK-based website Carbon Brief on 70 peer-reviewed studies shows that an increase of just 2oC in global temperatures would have consequences, including a sea-level rise of 2ft (56cm) and potentially severe heat waves at least every five years for 37% of the world. This means that 388 million people could suffer water scarcity, and 195 million people would experience severe drought. 

As well as exiting the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration has rolled back regulations forcing coal plants to treat wastewater with more effective techniques to reduce water pollution. These changes were part of Trump’s campaign promise to revive the US coal industry. However, despite Trump’s best efforts and a ‘shameless handout’ as described by Brett Hartl (Government Affairs Director for the Centre for Biological Diversity) in reference to new Environmental Protection Agency effluent guidelines, the coal industry has continued to decline due to competition from inexpensive natural gas. 

If re-elected, President Trump will keep his environmentally-unfriendly stance, eliminating Obama-era rules which could have helped the climate. This includes the requirement that auto companies make vehicles 4.7% more fuel efficient every year. The US does still promise to cut emissions by 26%-28% compared to levels in 2005 by 2025, according to a White House fact sheet sent out to reporters in 2015 by Brian Deese, the White House Climate Advisor. The economic firm Rhodium Group claims that, depending on how much the pandemic affects the economy, the US could see emissions drop 20%-27% below levels in 2005 by 2025. Even if the US did manage to fulfil its pledge, the reductions itself are not significant enough to delay the rise of global temperatures. To put it in context, if all countries were to pursue similar commitments, the world would still get hotter by 3-4oC, according to analysis by the Climate Action Tracker. This is especially controversial as the US, along with China and India, have the highest levels of human-driven carbon pollution in the world, with carbon emissions totalling 17,575 million metric tonnes from fossil fuels in 2017 alone. 

If Joe Biden were to win the presidential race, there would be a stark difference in environmental policy. He promises to immediately rejoin the Paris agreement within an estimated 30 days. His goal to have overall net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a feat that scientists agree is needed from every country in order to avoid the worst possible impacts of the climate crisis. Another priority of his is the US electricity system, which Biden wants carbon-free by 2035. He also says he plans for a $2 trillion investment into clean energy over the next four years. Although he has outlined an ambitious climate plan, the majority of it would still need to be signed off by Congress. His plans would be nearly impossible to implement unless the Democrats manage to take control of the Senate. Even if the Democrats gain a majority in both the House and the Senate, climate legislation may still be difficult to pass as priority may be given to resolving the negative consequences of COVID-19, such as the economic downturn and healthcare issues.

“Two-thirds of Americans say that the government isn’t doing enough to combat the effects of global warming”

The environment is still at the forefront of the issues that the majority of Americans want to see addressed, even with the COVID-19 pandemic placing a heavier focus on healthcare and the economy. According to a survey by the Pew Research Centre from June 2020, two-thirds of Americans say that the government isn’t doing enough to combat the effects of global warming. 

Photo Caption: Trump said his administration would ‘take care of a lot of years of horrible abuse’ towards the coal industry. Credit: Shutterstock.

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