The LSE Phelan US Centre’s Climate Change Essay Competition asked LSE Master’s students to address the question, “What responsibility does the US have to the rest of the world on climate change?” In the winning essay, Oscar Parry looks at the role of the United States as the largest global emitter of C02 and argues that it can be a global leader and innovator in tackling emissions in the global economy by requiring corporations and investors to reduce their carbon footprint, converting to a low-carbon economy, and increasing climate finance funding.
The world looks to the United States as a significant contributor to the problem of climate change, but also as a source of hope for the future. Although China currently leads in CO2 emissions, the US has a history of producing the largest share. A recent study based on the concept of an atmospheric commons finds that the US accounted for 40 percent of total emissions between 1850 and 2015, as depicted in Figure 1. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change includes the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” regarding climate adaptation. This highlights the obligation of the US, as the largest historical emitter and the world’s economic leader, to take up the challenge of transitioning to a sustainable future.
Figure 1 – CO2 Emissions between 1850 – 2015
Many experts in the field of climate change feel that debates on which country is responsible for emissions lack a solid empirical foundation. In an age of increasing globalisation, traditional methods of equating national responsibility with national accounts such as GDP and shares of world manufacturing are becoming outdated. We must shift our analysis to the global economy, where US corporations still hold dominant positions, particularly in high-tech industries such as aerospace, computer hardware and software, and pharmaceuticals as shown in Figure 2. Although there is much current discourse around the rise of China’s economy, the US is still the driving force of global innovation and must support the rest of the world through technology transfer and skill sharing.
Figure 2 – US-domiciled companies share of global sectors and industries
A recent “Carbon Majors” study has found that 100 of the world’s active fossil fuel companies have produced a staggering 71 percent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. American investors make up the largest portion of global shareholders, with US-based institutional investors holding 65 percent of available shares. The World Inequality Report highlights a significant divide in emissions based on wealth as shown in Figure 3, with the wealthiest 10 percent of people, which includes over 102 million Americans, contributing to 48 percent of carbon emissions. In contrast, the poorest half of the global population only produces 12 percent of emissions. The US government must act by requiring corporations and investors to reduce their carbon footprint, increasing reporting requirements, and implementing higher taxes on investments in polluting industries.
Figure 3 – Global Carbon Inequality
If all nations fulfil their current commitments, the world will experience a temperature increase of 2.5°C by the end of the century. This could lead to several global tipping points being crossed, potentially leading to a snowballing rise in temperature with catastrophic effects. The UN Emissions gap report finds that greenhouse gas emissions need to decrease by 45 percent by 2030 to restrict global warming to 1.5°C. The conversion to a low-carbon economy could cost anywhere from $4-6 trillion annually and will necessitate comprehensive changes to the financial system. Ending fossil fuel subsidies, estimated to be over $5.9 trillion a year, would be a great first step towards saving the 4 percent of global annual economic output that could be lost in the near future from climate damage.
Developing countries will need to invest over $300 billion annually in climate adaptation funds by 2030 to meet decarbonisation targets. Climate change will incur huge economic costs to many developing nations as the likelihood of severe weather events increases. Pakistan has recently experienced significant flood damage costing $30 billion, despite emitting less than 1 percent of global emissions. Developed nations have not yet even met their 2009 promise of providing $100 billion annually for climate finance. Funding must be rapidly increased, and the US has a large role to play in supporting less developed countries in their shift to a greener future.
The four-year withdrawal of the US from the international climate community, including climate negotiations and efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, has created a noticeable void in global leadership and credibility. However, in this time there has been a major shift in the perception of the low-carbon transition. The focus of climate change research has progressed from solely focusing on the costs of mitigation to promoting opportunities it presents. These include access to low-cost renewable energy, the creation of new green jobs, environmental justice for communities affected by pollution, and energy development in countries that lack comprehensive infrastructure. Deloitte estimates that the transition to net-zero emissions would grow the global economy by $43 trillion by 2070, while inaction on climate change could lead to $178 trillion of losses.
The price of renewable energy has significantly dropped and the development of new technologies, particularly in the area of batteries, is continuously reducing the cost of decarbonizing. Most of the American public, including over half of Republicans and a vast majority of Democrats, are in favour of various measures aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change including large-scale afforestation, tax incentives for companies that implement carbon capture and stricter fuel efficiency regulations for vehicles.
In conclusion, the US has a significant responsibility to the rest of the world in addressing the issue of climate change. The actions of the US, both past and present, have contributed to the current crisis, and the country must take a leading role in tackling the situation head-on. Some of the wealthiest individuals bear a large portion of the responsibility for driving climate breakdown, they must be involved in building a greener future through redistributive policies and higher taxation. The power of the international financial system must be brought to bear on the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. Ultimately, it is the collective responsibility of those in control of the commanding heights of the global economy to create a sense of urgency that will drive the political will to follow through on existing pledges and commitments. The prospect of a zero-carbon world is becoming increasingly realistic, and the US must take the lead if it wants to maintain global relevance during the green transition. In the words of US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry “The world will not follow our advice; it will follow our example.”
- Header image photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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