Melting ice is a reminder of the climate emergencySource: Financial Times
Biden victory could help to shift the fight against carbon emissions
The last three weeks have brought troubling news about ice. Canada's last fully intact ice shelf has broken apart. Tourists in Italy have been evacuated as huge chunks of glacier ice threaten to crash down in summer heat. Scientists have reported that Greenland lost the record-breaking equivalent of 1m tonnes of ice a minute over 2019 and its ice sheet has reached a worrying new normal of sustained loss.
This matters. Melting glaciers and ice sheets help to drive up global sea levels and more than 600m people live in coastal areas less than 10m above sea level. Little in 21st century history suggests the carbon emissions driving climate breakdown will ever fall fast. Yet two developments this year threaten to shake things up Covid-19 and the November US presidential election.
The juddering economic shock of the pandemic means global fossil fuel emissions will be at least 4 per cent lower than they were last year, researchers estimate. Emissions may well bounce back as they did after the last financial crisis in 2008-09. Yet much has changed since that crisis, not least the diverging fortunes of clean and fossil-fuel energy.
Spending on renewable power will outstrip oil and gas drilling for the first time next year, Goldman Sachs analysts predict, a shift driven by widening differences in the costs of capital. Borrowing rates have risen to as much as 20 per cent for fossil fuel ventures compared with as little as 3 per cent for renewables. Meanwhile, the dangers of a more extreme climate have grown more visible from devastating Australian bushfires to evacuated Italians and public concern has grown.
In contrast to the last financial crisis, public support for tackling climate change has been undimmed by the pandemic in some countries. Only 9 per cent of Britons are opposed to stronger climate action while 62 per cent are in favour, a think-tank survey showed this month. Tellingly, more than half agreed that "climate is like the pandemic and that we need to take action now".
Some governments are therefore heeding the International Energy Agency's warning that their Covid recovery plans will "almost certainly" decide if the world meets its climate goals. Most green plans are in Europe, but this could soon change.
Investors are already betting that Donald Trump will lose the November US presidential election to his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, who has a $2tn green energy plan that he made a centrepiece of his address to the Democratic party convention this week.
Shares in clean power companies have soared as Mr Biden's polling figures have climbed. A Biden victory could mean much more than a reversal of Mr Trump's ill-advised decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord. Global trade could be shaken too.
Mr Biden has vowed to impose carbon border taxes on imports from climate laggards, a measure the EU also backs. A US-EU carbon club would in theory pose a formidable threat. Using the global trade system instead of the UN to drive climate policy might even jolt China, the country that more than any other holds the key to the climate crisis. Its emissions last year topped those of the US, EU and Japan combined and its pandemic recovery plans are worrying.
Despite being a green energy powerhouse, China is approving new coalfired power plants at the fastest rate since 2015. This is unfortunate. China and many other nations must do much more. Yet, even if the record suggests they will be hesitant, there is still reason to think that, in this most unusual of years, business as usual will not last