US Election 2020 – a turning point for the planet

Whoever wins the 2020 Presidential election will have a host of issues to contend with, not least: trying to ensure a rapid economic recovery, and overcoming the nation’s greatest modern national health crisis.

As the world’s largest economy, the United States plays a significant role in the story of what’s happening to our planet. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the US was responsible for 15 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions in 2018.

This was equivalent to 5.41 gigatonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere, making the US the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China took the top spot in 2018, emitting 10.06GT by comparison. US emissions were so high in 2018 that they were more than the combined emissions of the Russian Federation, Germany, Japan, Brazil, the UK and France.

Being the world’s largest economy comes with huge rewards for the US on the surface, but this has a tremendous impact on the planet.

A pivotal election year for the US

US Presidential elections are game-changing moments for the fight against climate change. Held every four years, they bring millions of voters out to have their voices heard. This year’s election sees the incumbent, President Donald Trump, a Republican, defending his first-term record against an experienced opponent.

His rivals, the Democrats, chose former Vice President Joe Biden to fight to help them regain the White House. President Trump is campaigning for a second and final term of four years, alongside his VP, Mike Pence. Mr Biden selected Californian Senator Kamala Harris to be his Vice-Presidential nominee, if he wins.

The two sides are conducting an unconventional election campaign, owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the environment is still a prominent topic for discussion, and the following fact makes it easy to see why.

Just two years ago, NASA revealed that, in the absence of any major action against climate change, global temperatures could rise by as much as 6 degrees Celsius over the coming decades. In a more observable sign of change, the Arctic is likely to become ice-free in summertime in the next few years, NASA claimed.

Even swift and decisive actions to halt climate change wouldn’t be able to stop some damage being done, as NASA added that there is something of a time lag between our behaviour and the full-blown impact on the planet itself.

Fracking is a contentious topic

Just when we thought the days of oil and gas were numbered, technological innovations enabled the discovery of even more of it. Deep below the surface of the Earth, shale deposits are often found to be rich in gas and oil. In the past few years, the US has turned from a net importer of foreign oil to a net exporter, all thanks to the booming fracking industry.

Since 2008, the US has ramped up production of crude oil to great effect, through the process of pumping jets of water, sand and chemicals into shale deposits. The jets blast the shale at high-speed, allowing the oil and gas to be pumped up to the surface for refining. However, the process is controversial – a 2012 report admitted it has the unintentional side-effect of potentially polluting groundwater.

President Trump is reportedly considering ordering in-depth analysis of fracking, in order to highlight the positive economic impact of it. This suggests he has a strong pro-fracking agenda, based on economic terms.

Mr Biden, on the other hand, has a somewhat complicated view on fracking. US news outlet CNN conducted a fact check revealing this anomaly. In previous speeches, Mr Biden reportedly suggested making sure coal and fracking were ‘eliminated.’

However, Mr Biden’s actual climate plan suggests he would simply ban any new oil and gas fracking from going ahead, but not pre-existing operations.

What does Greta Thunberg think?

Remember Greta Thunberg? The Swedish schoolgirl-turned-activist, who took the world by storm in recent years, famously addressed world leaders in a much-publicised speech in September 2019. Seeking to highlight the risk of collapsing eco-systems, the Swedish climate activist warned of the beginning of a mass extinction event.

President Trump tweeted about her speech, appearing to mock her by suggesting she was “a happy young girl, looking forward to a bright future” – Greta fired back, changing her Twitter bio to match the President’s remarks as a subtle dig.

Having used her own schooldays to protest outside the Swedish Parliament, Greta Thunberg is no stranger to holding politicians to account. Even so, she has now done a rare thing, offering an insight into her political views. In mid-October, she tweeted support for Joe Biden and the Democrats.

To learn more about Greta Thunberg’s work, read about how Fridays for Future returned in full force in our piece here.

What would the two candidates do?

As mentioned earlier, Joe Biden’s climate plan refers to stopping new oil and gas extraction projects via fracking, but not pre-existing ones. Mr Biden is campaigning for a carbon-neutral power sector by 2035, as well as proposing greater spending on clean energy technology. To seal his green credentials, Mr Biden is also understood to be eyeing up tax incentives to encourage private businesses to invest in clean energy.

When it comes to assessing President Trump’s approach to the environment, it’s less about what he intends to actively do to address climate change, but more about pursuing policies that will have a negative impact on the climate instead.

Studying President Trump’s first term and past behaviour gives an insight into the plans he may continue to pursue for a second term. For example, during his first, term, the President announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Withdrawal would give the appearance that President Trump is less inclined to consider such measures.

In a Promises Kept document overviewing his achievements, President Trump claims to have allocated additional financing for new coal and fossil fuel energy projects. Much is made about the expansion of interest in boosting the production of US oil and gas. More reliance on hydrocarbons would make it trickier for the US to lessen its carbon footprint in the coming years.

For more information about the affordability of President Trump and Joe Biden’s climate plans, check out this useful report by Quantum Energy Consultants.

Time is ticking for the climate

We’re used to viewing the battle against climate change as a long-term ambition, but recent headlines would suggest that it’s actually events in the short-term that could have the most impact. Targets for climate change action often revolve around preventing a temperature increase by a certain year. For example, 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is often chosen.

Keeping temperatures from rising any higher could mean the difference between coral reefs existing or going extinct in their entirety, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC added that global carbon emissions must peak by 2020, just to keep the planet below the 1.5 degrees target by 2100.

In effect, that means what’s happening in the here and now in 2020 could determine whether we hold back the advance of climate change or whether we’re in for a less hospitable future. The US Presidential election is just one turning point in the year which could prove decisive in this regard.

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