The 2020 US presidential election is a pivotal moment for global efforts to tackle climate change. No matter the result, Australia will face renewed pressure to do its share to reduce emissions.

As unprecedented wildfires raged across the American west last month, former US President Barack Obama took to social media. “Protecting our planet is on the ballot,” he wrote.  “Vote like your life depends on it—because it does.”  As we count down to the 2020 US presidential election, we could forgive Obama the colourful rhetoric.  But is the contest for the White House really that important for the future of our planet? The short answer is yes, actually, it is.

It’s not just the US presidency that hangs in the balance.  At stake is global cooperation on climate change.  If Trump wins a second term, the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement just days after the votes are tallied, a move that could unravel the agreement altogether. If Joe Biden takes the White House, he has promised not only to return the US to the Paris Agreement, but also to rally countries worldwide to make stronger pledges to reduce emissions. Biden promises to host a summit of major economies in Washington within his first 100 days of office, to plot a shared course for climate action.

For Australians, the scenes of devastation on the American west coast are all too familiar. Here too, we have seen catastrophic fires which have incinerated millions of animals, turned the sky blood-red, and rendered the air we breathe a health hazard.  Many are worried this is the “new normal” – that each summer will bring new disasters, whether devastating bushfires, flooding rains, more powerful cyclones, or all three.  But this not the new normal. This is just the beginning.  The planet has already warmed 1°C above the long-term average.  Without drastic action to curb emissions, we’re headed for at least 3°C of warming this century, a cataclysmic scenario that could lead to runaway warming and a “hothouse earth” plagued by mass extinctions. Large parts of the globe could become uninhabitable.

The best chance we have? Strengthening the Paris Agreement

Under the terms of the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries have agreed to work together to limit global warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.”  Coming after decades of incremental (and often torturous) negotiations at the United Nations, the Paris Agreement is itself a major diplomatic achievement. It has been signed by 197 countries and formally ratified by 189 of them. But it is not a “set and forget” arrangement. Instead, it provides a framework for countries to work together to decarbonise the global economy. Under the Paris Agreement countries must, every five years, increase their pledges to reduce emissions. The pledges are known as “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs). This process is intended to act as a ratchet mechanism for climate action – as countries take steps to reduce emissions, they will pressure other states that are not doing their share and by this means, we will move to a net-zero emissions global economy by the middle of this century. While it is far from perfect, the Paris Agreement may offer the best chance we have to stabilise the planet’s climate.

Next year, the UK (the first major economy to legislate a net-zero emissions 2050 target) will host the annual UN climate talks.  This summit will come at a critical moment, with all countries required to pledge stronger Paris Agreement targets. Originally scheduled this year, COP26 was deferred to 2021 due to COVID-19, a delay that may prove a blessing for climate action.  As major economies plan their recovery from the pandemic, they are investing in renewable energy and green industrial policy.  The EU for example has announced a “Green Deal,” a multi-trillion-dollar plan to cut emissions in half by 2030, and to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.  Chinese President Xi Jinping has also announced that China – the world’s largest carbon emitter and consumer of coal-fired power – will peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and will strive to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.  Both the EU and China have promised new Nationally Determined Contributions before the COP26 climate summit.

A Biden presidency would signal a decisive shift toward global decarbonisation. If he wins the White House, Biden says the US will join the EU and China and update its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement. He also promises to pursue a two-trillion-dollar plan to shift the US economy toward renewable energy and to set a target to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century.  Together, the US, the EU, and China, represent more than half of the world’s economy.  With clear signals toward decarbonisation from policymakers in the world’s most powerful states, financial markets will follow. We can expect continued divestment from the dirtiest of fossil fuels, and massive investment in the electricity grids and transport infrastructure of tomorrow.

Canberra’s challenge: Joining the global climate effort

The US presidential election poses a challenge for policymakers in Canberra. While every Australian state and territory (and major industry groupsunions, and the National Farmers Federation) have all backed the target of net zero emissions by 2050, the federal government refuses to set a mid-century emissions target.  Australia is not on track to meet its 2030 Paris Agreement target and has no plans to update its Nationally Determined Contributions. In order to ”meet” its current target, the federal government is relying on a loophole – using leftover “credits” from the previous Kyoto Protocol to avoid making actual reductions in emissions.  At the 2019 UN climate summit in Spain this proposal to use Kyoto ‘credits’ was opposed by more than 100 countries.  Australia is also the world’s largest exporter of thermal coal.

If Biden wins, Australia will be isolated on climate policy.  With the US, the EU, China, the UK, New Zealand and neighbouring states in the Pacific all committing to net-zero emissions targets, pressure will only grow for Australia to make a similar commitment in the lead up to UN climate talks in late 2021.  We can expect the US in particular to press Australia to do its share in global efforts to reduce emissions.  As Jake Sullivan, a long-time senior advisor to Biden, told the Lowy Institute in September, a Biden presidency would “rally the nations of the world, to get everyone to up their game, to elevate their ambition, to do more.”  He said Biden would “hold countries like China accountable for doing more, but he’s also going to push our friends to do more as well, to step up and fulfil their responsibilities for what is fundamentally a global problem.”

If Trump wins and formally withdraws the US from the Paris Agreement, other countries will still look to bolster global cooperation on climate change, and Australia will be expected to reaffirm commitment to the climate regime. The UN Secretary General, and the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have already scheduled a summit for 12 December 2020, to mark the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement. Both the EU and China will remain committed to achieving Paris targets.  However, the most dangerous scenario will be if countries choose to follow Trump’s lead and walk away from global cooperation on climate change.  If that happens the consequences are almost too horrible to contemplate.  Obama is right, the future of our planet really does hang in the balance.


Dr Wesley Morgan is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Griffith Asia Institute.

This article was first published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.