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Climate emergency: elections in spotlight as crucial decade begins

Katie KouchakjiFriday 18 December 2020

In October, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won a historic majority in elections, with her party’s platform including a pledge to achieve a 100 per cent renewable electricity system by 2035. She has since declared a climate emergency and that her government will be carbon neutral by 2025.

In South Korea in April, President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party won a majority in the National Assembly in the county’s legislative election, following a campaign that included a commitment to a Green New Deal and a net-zero goal.

These results represent victories for campaigning platforms that included strong climate action as part of the recovery from the Covid-19-induced economic crisis.

Having a pro-climate action White House will be a critical part of mobilising greater ambition and reinvigorating multilateralism

Nathaniel Keohane
Senior Vice-President at Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, DC

‘Time is of the essence on climate – we’ve lost a lot of time in the past two decades’, says Roger Martella, former General Counsel at GE and Council Member of the IBA Section on Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Infrastructure Law.

In New Zealand, James Shaw, Minister of Climate Change and co-leader of the Green Party, is however feeling ‘increasingly confident about the direction of travel. The level of consensus that we built up in the last term in getting the Zero Carbon Act through with unanimous support of the House has meant that there is a level of openness … and an understanding that [climate change] is real and we need to make some really tough calls.’

In the US, meanwhile, Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the presidential election in November is seen as a turning point.

‘It’s not an exaggeration to say the outcome of this US presidential election will have pretty fundamental implications for global climate action’, says Nathaniel Keohane, Senior Vice-President at Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, DC. ‘Having a pro-climate action White House will be a critical part of mobilising greater ambition and reinvigorating multilateralism.’

Biden has pledged to bring the US back into the Paris Agreement, a move welcomed by the climate community. ‘I don’t expect much of a honeymoon for a Biden administration’, Keohane says, with expectations high for Biden to table more ambitious reduction targets under the 2015 deal. ‘The fork in the road couldn’t be clearer, both for the US and for the world.’

International treaties, while not law, help drive action by keeping the collective pooling of sovereignty together, says Tom Burke, Co-founding Director and Chairman of think tank E3G. ‘The more the world is all moving in the same direction at a global level, the more you strengthen the hand of those people who want to deal with the problem and want to change the way the economy is structured to deal with the problem’, he says.

Another pivotal ballot is Germany’s September 2021 general election, which will anoint Angela Merkel’s successor as Chancellor.

‘Merkel has been a really staunch champion of [combatting] climate change, for a very long time’, says Burke. ‘She has been consistent in her application to the issue and, clearly, she’s the most influential leader in the EU.’

The relationship between the EU, China and the US is pivotal for climate action, with Merkel’s leadership having made a difference to the EU’s stance, he says.

The EU and China are among those which have put forward net-zero pledges in recent months, which Keohane describes as ‘game-changing’.

For Australia, China’s net-zero emissions by 2060 pledge ‘has huge implications … in terms of our trade and regional security relationships as well’, says Emma Herd, the Sydney-based Chief Executive Officer of the Investor Group on Climate Change.

South Korea and India have also adopted emission reduction targets, and over 50 per cent of Australia’s key trading partners have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, if not sooner – a fact that will influence Australia’s path forward.

‘It’s not surprising that climate change is so hard in Australia, given we are a carbon intensive economy’, says Herd. This challenge has given rise to the so-called ‘climate wars’, which have led to flip-flopping policy in the country for over a decade.

Australia’s next federal election is due in 2022, with a smattering of state elections first. The state elections are important to watch, says Herd, as policy implementation happens at a state level, for example in energy infrastructure.

Shaw remains optimistic that climate action globally will accelerate and that leaders will rise to the challenge. ‘What will happen is that the effects of climate change will continue to accelerate and be felt by a greater number of people, and that will make inaction less tolerable than it has been in the past’, he says.

However, he compares responses to the climate emergency as being similar to those to Covid-19, in the sense that by the time an outbreak is recognisable, it’s already two weeks too late. ‘So if you’re already feeling the effects of climate change, and that’s what’s giving you the conditions to make the right decisions, it’s kind of like, “well, look behind you”.’

These delays in acting will lead to a more disruptive and costly transition than if steps were taken in advance of these effects being felt, Shaw says. He points to extreme fires in Australia and California as ‘the canary in the mine’, rather than being the ‘new normal’.

Despite these early warning signs, climate action in the latter part of the last decade has been stymied by an increase in populist and nationalist politics and climate denialism – enabled by President Trump.

Shaw believes a change of US leadership will have a mitigating effect on this trend, but worries that, given the pressures and economic distress resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the misfiring response in many places, there could easily be the conditions for greater authoritarianism in some places, with significant implications for climate policy.

Having successful green recoveries from Covid-19 could help resolve some of the resentment and divisions that fuel populism, says Burke. ‘If the lessons from Covid-19 are learned and translated into a broader view of policy … there is reason to hope because you’ll deal with some of those underlying resentments’, he adds.‘But there’s no guarantee of political success for anything.’

‘There is a sense of urgency that is different from before’, says Martella, noting that climate action has been driven forward in the US with efforts by investors, business groups and non-governmental organisations regardless of national politics. ‘The world has just fundamentally changed in the past few years’, he adds.

Image: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com