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What will Biden’s presidency mean for the UK’s climate goals?

"The UK is making good progress but with Biden coming in with his strong messages it will give us added impetus to continue working and come up with even more significant action"
Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president today. Image credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States and wasted no time facing down one issue in particular: the climate crisis. 

Within hours of entering the White House, he ordered US agencies to ensure America rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, which was signed by 197 countries in 2015 aiming to limit global heating to 1.5C. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already vowed to work “hand in hand” with the new leader and climate change, it seems, will be crucial to putting the spark back into the special relationship.

The two men discussed the climate in their first call following Biden’s election, where Johnson invited the new commander-in-chief to this year’s UN climate change summit in Glasgow. 

But what could a Biden presidency mean for the UK’s climate goals? And will the arrival of a new administration lead to renewed bilateral effort on global warming? 

Support the The Big Issue’s Today for Tomorrow campaign by emailing your MP today

Dr Ruth Valerio, director of global advocacy and influencing at development agency Tearfund, told The Big Issue it “certainly looked like” climate change would form a big part of UK-US relations.

“Wherever there may be policies that the two administrations disagree on, the climate crisis is one they can agree on and work on together in a really positive way,” she said.

“It ups the ante for the UK as well and is mutually reinforcing in a really beneficial way.

“The UK is making good progress but with Biden coming in with his strong messages, it will give us added impetus to continue working on that and come up with even more significant action,” she added. 

Biden promised immediate action on climate change the moment he entered the White House, and followed this through yesterdat by immediately rejoining the Paris Climate accord.

Despite calling himself a “great environmentalist”, Trump received near-universal condemnation when he claimed the treaty was “unfair” to American workers and the US became the first country in the world to withdraw in 2017.

Valerio said the US rejoining the agreement could once again reignite the collective effort on climate change. 

“It will be significant because it sends a strong message to other world leaders, as well,” she added. 

“It puts us as a global community back onto a path of recognising the seriousness of our climate crisis, and of the need to act together in order for us to tackle it and to take that serious action.” 

Johnson wasted no time inviting the new US president to Glasgow in November for the UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26.

It will see 30,000 attendees, including climate change experts and world leaders, meet to discuss environmental issues. 

Climate technology, capacity-building, science, education and sustainable development will be among the topics discussed to “agree coordinated action to tackle climate change”. 

The UK is also set to host the G7 in Cornwall in June, which should see the two men get together and discuss international issues.

Valerio said this was good news but more still needed to be done, adding: “We need really significant pledges that bring us down below two degrees, and preferably, we need to be below 1.5.

“I don’t think I’d be sensible if I was feeling fully optimistic about the future. We are facing a massive climate emergency. 

“We see day-in day-out the impact that the climate is changing, climate is already having on people living in poverty. 

“So we face a massive challenge and we can’t keep putting it off. This year needs to be the year where we take that significant action and put into place the pledges that are being made.”

This was echoed by Josh Buckland, a director at Flint Global and former climate adviser to Downing Street.

Writing on Twitter, Buckland said: “Today is a hugely exciting moment in the global push for net-zero, but plenty more needed if US and UK are to translate warm words into real domestic action to cut emissions over the next decade and keep Paris Agreement in reach.”

The influential Fridays for Future climate movement made up of young activists have also penned a letter to president Biden and vice president Kamala Harris urging them not to row back on their promises.

“We – 12 youth climate activists around the world – are writing this because our present and future depend on the actions your government takes within the next four years,” the letter read.

“You made promises to take action against fossil fuel polluters who put profit over people, and knowingly harm our environment and poison our communities. It is time to let actions speak louder than words. Are you going to do what science is asking you to do to fight the climate crisis?

“The United States is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases. The next four years will decide whether we can limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. Your place in history makes you the last administration able to act in time.

“To live up to the targets you’ve promised,  you need to start taking concrete, immediate, and decisive action immediately. Being better than Trump isn’t enough. But also simply continuing where the Obama administration ended is far from sufficient.”

The Big Issue is also spearheading a cross-party campaign to tackle the climate crisis and “create a better tomorrow” for young people.

Climate change will be at the heart of The Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, which has been cosponsored by Big Issue founder, Lord Bird and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.

The bill, which will have its first main outing in the House of Commons on Friday January 22, would require the Government to work to take preventative measures against problems such as climate change and poverty and give current and future generations a voice in decision-making.

Lord Bird has urged the public to support the bill by contacting their MP: “Spending just two minutes of your time doing this will be a huge help in raising the profile of the Bill’s scheduled second reading in the House of Commons later this month.

“2020 was a year when Covid and Brexit have knocked almost every other issue off the agenda. However, the same cannot hold true for 2021.”

The Big Issue’s Today for Tomorrow campaign aims to tackle the climate crisis, poverty and pandemics with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. Support the Bill by emailing your MP today: bigissue.com/today-for-tomorrow/