Author: Doug Gavel
The Biden Administration is showing a renewed commitment to addressing climate change, but there is still a long road ahead for the development of substantive domestic policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). That was one of the messages delivered on Friday (April 30) during a Virtual Forum hosted by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA) and moderated by Robert Stavins, HPCA Director and A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development.
Guest speaker Nat Keohane, Senior Vice President for Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund who earned a Ph.D. in Political Economy and Government at Harvard, shared his insights on both the science and the politics affecting climate policy, and his hopes for the upcoming UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP-26), scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland.
“President Biden and his team hit the ground running immediately,” Keohane said, referring to the administration’s move to reenter the Paris Agreement on January 20th. “But there's still a fair amount of skepticism in the rest of the world…and [there is] a need for the U.S. to demonstrate that it’s serious [about its commitment to climate policy].”
The President’s recently-released climate plan calls for a 50-to-52 percent reduction in economy-wide GHG emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, an ambitious target that Keohane believes will serve to incentivize other large emitters to increase the ambition of their pledges prior to the upcoming COP. Both Canada and Japan have already done so, Keohane said, and there are hopes that China, India, and Brazil may follow suit if US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is successful in his negotiations with foreign leaders.
Here at home, the Biden Administration faces an uphill battle passing any significant climate legislation, but Keohane argued that it can take meaningful steps forward by regulating methane gas emissions, increasing investment in green technologies, and eventually building public support for a national carbon price, which would both stabilize GHG emissions and raise revenues.
“If we are going to really address climate change and reduce CO2 emissions at the scale and scope and pace that we need to, both to solve the climate problem and to meet the President’s [GHG reduction] target…the best way to do it would include some sort of limit and price on carbon pollution across the economy.”
Keohane admitted the “the politics of a carbon price on Capitol Hill is challenging,” but could be sold to the American people as a way to raise significant revenues, as much as a quarter of a trillion dollars a year. “That’s a lot of money, and there aren’t a lot of other sources of revenue that come up with 250 billion dollars,” he said.
A carbon border adjustment, which are import fees levied by countries with ambitious climate policies on goods manufactured in countries with no or less ambitious climate policies, is a controversial proposal that many countries and regions, including the European Union, are currently grappling with. Keohane called it a “blunt force instrument…used to ideally help create incentives for other countries to act and to increase their ambition…but I don’t think we should think of it as a fine-tuned way to establish a carbon price that fairly addresses the carbon content of imported goods.”
As the nations across the world prepare for COP-26, assuming it does take place, Keohane expressed his hope that the US will continue to leverage bilateral negotiations to encourage other large countries, including China, to increase their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) before arriving in Glasgow. That said, Keohane also argued that climate leaders need to rethink the role of the COP moving forward.
“I don’t know exactly what that looks like. Maybe it involves more engagement among countries with best-practice sharing. Maybe it involves bringing in civil society or businesses to talk about implementation, but we need to think creatively,” he remarked. “Rather than have the object of every COP be some negotiated text in a world in which we've got the text…what we need is implementation.”
This webinar series, HPCA Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, features leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government. Look for an announcement about the next Virtual Forum. You will be able to register in advance for the event on the HPCA website.