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Joe Biden is the next president of the United States — what does it mean for sustainability in Asia Pacific?

A president who has laid siege to environmental causes over his four years in office has been replaced by another septuagenarian who wants the world's biggest economy back in the Paris Agreement. Eco-Business asked experts what a Biden election victory means for sustainability in Asia.

Joe Biden has won a closely fought presidential election in the United States, removing from office an incumbent who laid seige to the environment over his four-year term.

President Donald Trump falsely claimed victory the day after the first day of polling on Tuesday (3 November) and, as his opponent gained ground, blamed “big money, big media and big tech” for “stealing” the election.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Biden declared victory on Saturday (7 November) after securing the electoral college vote. A new record for daily cases in the US was set on Wednesday (4 November), with more than 132,000 new infections recorded.

Trump, who has called the Covid-19 pandemic “the Chinese virus” and sidelined the role of science and public health experts in managing an outbreak that had killed 235,000 Americans at the time of publishing, will make way for a Democrat who has pledged to reinstate the world’s largest economy’s position as a signatory to the Paris Agreement.

The US officially left the Paris accord, which was drafted in 2015 to strengthen the global response to climate change, on Wednesday (November 4), the first day of the election. Trump has said the accord would cost the American economy US$3 trillion and 6.5 million jobs, and “effectively decapitate” America’s ailing coal industry. Biden has said the US will rejoin the accord when he’s elected president.

Biden will be a boost for bursting the carbon bubble.

Michael Salvatico, head of Asia Pacific ESG Business Development, Trucost

During his term, Trump has reversed or diminished more than 70 regulations on climate, clean air, water, wildlife protection, and toxic chemicals, according to a study by Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School.

Biden has pledged to invest $1.7 trillion in clean energy and climate research over the next 10 years as part of his plan to revitalise the US energy sector and transform the country into a clean energy “superpower”.

So what will a Biden presidency mean for sustainability in Asia Pacific? Eco-Business asked experts what the post-Trump era will mean for climate leadership, the energy transition and eco anxiety in this region:

Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman, Singapore Institute of International Affairs 

“The US still is very divided on many issues, including climate change. The election coincided with the official pullout from the Paris Agreement. Biden has emphasised addressing climate change. Many American companies, citizens, cities and even states agree. But the Republicans control the Senate and there are also energy and other interest groups that will push against a real commitment.

With or without the US, there is emerging leadership in Asia. The commitments by China, Japan and South Korea to aim for net zero emissions will have ripple effects across the region, and their manufacturing, investment and trade links. The EU as a major economy and technology provider is also showing commendable leadership to emerge from the pandemic with a “green recovery”. Singapore and other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also have their own commitments and the region must position to move ahead, with or without the US government on board.”

Michael Salvatico, head of Asia Pacific ESG business development, Trucost

“A Biden win is positive for countries that have made commitments to net zero emissions: China, Korea, New Zealand and Japan. The countries that have not changed their focus on high-carbon intensive industries will be at a disadvantage. Those countries that rely on carbon intensive exports are already facing future pressures as net zero countries will be concerned about imported emissions. Biden will be a boost for bursting the carbon bubble.

Globally, investors will be more seriously seeking pathways to net zero with milestone targets to meet. There will be a bigger focus on Paris Agreement alignment and the risk of a carbon price. Companies will be counting their earnings at risk from a potential carbon price. For some companies this could be substantial. Investors will be paying attention and looking closely at the impact on company valuations.”

Georg Kell, founder and former Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact, chairman, Arabesque Partners

“I’ve lived in the US for 30 years, and for first time in a long time I’m feeling optimistic. Last year, I felt really down, and I promised my wife we would relocate back to Europe if Trump won a second term. It’s been so sad to witness how institutions have been hollowed out.

What’s now possible is a race to the top. Europe has just earmarked US$750 billion for a green recovery. Biden says when he thinks of climate, he thinks of jobs, and has a US$1.7 trillion clean energy plan. China is about to hatch a new five-year climate plan, and has been watching very closely. I think we will be back to a situation where we were just before the Paris Agreement. With a bit of luck, it will become clear that climate change is the common enemy, and China and the US will collaborate on climate again.”

Swati Mandloi, representative, Singapore Youth for Climate Action

“If the new president does as he says and joins the target of net zero by mid-century, more than half of the world’s biggest carbon emitters (China, Japan, the European Union and South Korea) will be on the recommended path to limiting temperature rise by 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This means we will see rapid technological progress and financial incentives to transition to a greener economy. We hope this will send a strong message to key sectors like energy that the need for change is coming.

There has been a growing empowerment of voices in Asia as major emitters in the region have committed to ambitious targets. We have shared the joy of youth organisations in South Korea, Japan and China when net zero targets were announced in recent weeks. We believe the same is the case for American youth working in advocating for climate policies and environmental protection.”

Biden’s win will go some way in relieving the mounting eco-anxiety of the last four years.

Anthea Ong, former Nominated Member of Parliament, Singapore

Norly Mercado, Asia regional director, 350.org

“It’s time for the United States to step up as a global climate leader and re-enter the Paris Agreement. They must phase out existing fossil fuel extraction and put in place a Green New Deal that protects communities, workers and economies by developing a roadmap that transitions us off fossil fuels and centers energy democracy. The US must advance climate justice for communities globally – in Asia Pacific and also other areas — who are most impacted by climate breakdown and shift finance flows from fossil fuel to renewable solutions.”

Anthea Ong, former Nominated Member of Parliament, Singapore

“In the clearest of signals that hope is back on the table, Biden has promised that the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement as one of the first business matters he will get to as President. I think Biden’s win will go some way in relieving the mounting eco-anxiety of the last four years. However, we must not forget that eco-anxiety has also been exacerbated by the anxieties brought on by the Covid-19 crisis, aside from the reversals by the Trump administration. So it’s not just going away with Biden’s win, given the fierce urgency and scale of work that we need to do to address the climate crisis.”

Dr Frank Rijsberman, director general, Global Green Growth Institute

“In President-elect Biden, the fight against the climate crisis has gained a strong ally. While an American Green New Deal would be the best outcome for the US and the world, it is not the most likely result, unless the two Senate run-off elections in Georgia are both won by Democrats. We can count on Joe Biden to bring the US back to the Paris Agreement immediately, however, and expect to see a more ambitious NDC [nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement] prepared by his administration before COP26.”

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