This time next year we will (hopefully) just have come to the end of the Glasgow climate talks, COP26. They will have certainly run late on the Friday, may well have talked through Saturday and may even have finished things only on Sunday.

Important agreements should have been made about how to deliver on the targets in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Major commitments should have been made on funding the fight to reduce emissions and help countries cope with the changing climate. The role of the United States will have been crucial, as it always is, for good or bad.

US role in previous COPs

The US were instrumental in creating the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 under George Bush Snr. They were huge blockers of a deal in 2000 under instructions from his son as President-Elect, so much so that an unprecedented follow up meeting had to be held six months later. I shall never forget being in the plenary hall as respectable delegates from the world’s nations booed the US chief negotiator when she tried to claim the US had engaged constructively.

Donald Trump won the 2016 election on the second day of the two-week climate talks in Marrakech. President Obama sent his Secretary of State John Kerry to reassure us all that the Democrats would make sure Trump wouldn’t follow through on his promise to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. They failed but ironically it takes four years to leave the Agreement so the US only officially left the day after the current US election.

Will President Biden be different?

President Obama came to the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 and Joe Biden may well come to the talks in Glasgow next November. It will be his first chance, in his first year, to show that he wants to be seen as a leader on climate change, bringing the US back in to the family of nations.

Joe Biden’s campaign included a detailed climate and energy plan. There is a specific promise to take the US back into the Paris Agreement, and in the last few days he has said that will be one of his first priorities when he takes office.

After a bit of a shaky start, climate change became a central plank of Biden’s election platform. The plan also has a lot about a $2tn boost for clean energy, and promises to set a national goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, although it was not quite brave enough to commit to the other half of the equation – actually reducing fossil fuel extraction.

The Democrats control the House of Representatives but the balance of members of the Senate is still to be decided, with the betting currently favouring the Republicans. So Biden may have only limited power to deliver on the big promises on energy and climate. Even so the US will be back at the UN talks as a state which now believes that scientific evidence is important, and that’s got to make a big difference.

The US will need to put forward a 2030 climate plan before the Glasgow talks, and this will show how serious the new administration are about urgent and fundamental changes to climate emissions.

Dr Richard Dixon is Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 17 November 2020.

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