How the Democrats’ Senate victory could help spur global climate action

Taking control of the Senate could help Joe Biden to enact some of his ambitious climate plan  – with reverberating effects for other countries, experts tell Daisy Dunne

Friday 08 January 2021 12:04 GMT
Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both made US history this week
Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both made US history this week (REUTERS)

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both made history on Wednesday by taking victory in two election runoffs held in the state of Georgia. Mr Ossoff, 33, is the youngest man to enter the Senate since president-elect Joe Biden in 1973, while Reverend Warnock is the first Black senator to represent a former Confederate state.

As well as marking a key moment in US political history, their victories could also represent a major step forward in the global battle to tackle the climate crisis.  

Their triumph means that both the Republicans and the Democrats have now ended the election with 50 senators each. In this situation, the deciding vote in legislative matters is given to the Democrat’s vice president-elect Kamala Harris.

Taking control of the Senate could go some way in helping president-elect Joe Biden to enact his ambitious climate plans. Biden won the US election in November after promising to bring about a $2trn package of measures to tackle the climate crisis.

The Senate win will strengthen Biden’s mandate for taking bold climate action in the world’s second-most highly emitting country, says Pete Betts, the former lead climate negotiator for the UK and EU and current fellow of Chatham House.

“Control of the Senate, as well as the House, definitely significantly increases Biden’s room for manoeuvre,” he tells The Independent.

“The international implication of taking the Senate is it increases the chances that the US can do something very meaningful in terms of their own emissions reductions pledges, and this gives them a little more clout and weight in pushing others to do more.”

Having control of the Senate could help Biden to bring about some new measures to promote spending on clean energy and energy efficiency in the US. Such moves will likely have a ricochet effect on other parts of the global economy, says Richard Black, a senior associate and former director at the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, a non-profit in the UK.

“It will enable the US to redirect its economy more swiftly in the clean energy direction,” he tells The Independent. “That of course has a massive impact globally simply because the US is such a major economy, so the direction that the US takes economically has knock-on effects for the prices and energy and the rapidity at which clean technologies are deployed around the world.”

However, Biden is still likely to face political challenges in getting some of his more ambitious proposals through the Senate. Under Senate rules, at least 60 out of the 100 senators are required to agree on any policy change beyond spending and taxation.

“For sure, not all of the Democrat senators are in favour of particularly strong action on climate change,” says Black.

“But equally, it’s going to be interesting to see how the stance of some of the Republican senators might change. As the Georgia votes show us, there are winds of change blowing through some parts of the US. We know that some of the younger Republcian politicians are coming to grips with climate change and acknowledging the reality. So I don’t think we can yet tell how that balance is going to pan out in the Senate.”

In terms of foreign climate policy, taking control of the Senate might not make too much difference, say Betts and Black.

This is because Biden has already pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the international deal aimed at keeping global warming well below 2C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. (Donald Trump formally took the country out of the climate deal in November 2020.)

“Whatever happens Biden is going to give a very high profile to climate change internationally,” says Betts. “The appointment of Kerry as the special representative is a very strong signal there.”

Biden appointed  former Secretary of State John Kerry to serve as a “special presidential envoy” for the climate crisis as part of the incoming administration in November 2020.  

A key step for the incoming Biden administration will be to submit an updated climate plan to the UN, as it will be required of the country once it rejoins the Paris Agreement, Betts adds. This plan will need to include a target for reducing the country’s emissions.

“There are different views on how long it will take them to put their own commitment together,” Betts says. “That will probably take some months I would imagine. But they could probably get a number [for an emissions target] together more quickly if they are controlling both houses of Congress.

“So I think we will see a very substantial acceleration in momentum whatever happens, but it will be stronger if the Democrats have the Senate.”

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