The Guardian view on Biden’s green revolution: it needs revolutionaries | Editorial

The Guardian view on Biden’s green revolution: it needs revolutionaries | Editorial

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden made it clear that the environment would be at the heart of his economic agenda. In office, he has been true to his word by proposing fiscal and regulatory action to limit the damage from the climate emergency, while simultaneously addressing the inequalities that distort the US economy. No president has so fully embraced tackling the climate emergency. Republicans think it’s too hard a hug, while some Democrats think Mr Biden ought to hug harder. But the world should breathe a sigh of relief, especially after the climate denialism of the Trump administration.

President Biden’s green shift is both welcome and in tune with US public opinion. What is disappointing is that while he wants to deploy the power of the state at home, his administration wants markets to do the heavy lifting abroad. The climate emergency should not be used to make poorer countries dependent on private finance. Richer countries ought to provide enough no-strings cash to allow developing nations to gain the institutional capacity to sustain their own patterns of carbon-neutral consumption and investment. The US will double public climate finance to developing countries to $6bn a year. This is just a sliver of Mr Biden’s $2.25tn green jobs plan. Developing countries have no votes in the US Congress. But it is morally wrong for them to be collateral damage.

In the US, Mr Biden tells Wall Street that to help with a green transition it should buy Treasury bonds and take the risk of owning US government assets. The Biden blueprint for the US is a state-based model, where large-scale public investment is directed towards public green infrastructure, which citizens access freely. In a recent paper, Prof Daniela Gabor, a UWE Bristol economist, highlights a decade-long trend of private, not public, cash being mobilised to green poorer countries. Behind financial capital’s rhetoric of low-carbon just transitions, she warns, lies poised a massive expansion of state-mediated greenwashing.

Developing countries, she writes, are expected to guarantee profits for foreign investors while assuming the “currency, climate and liquidity risks” hardwired into often misleadingly tagged environmental infrastructure. This may seem an argument over means, not ends. But Africa’s first electric bus factory is a state-owned Ugandan firm in which China has trained staff and transferred technology. Beijing’s chequebook expansion of local productive capacity is not without its problems. But it offers poorer countries an appealing alternative to being an extractive market for western companies.

Prof Gabor also worries that western central banks will end up sanctioning and eventually bailing out greenwashed private finance. Failure to prevent catastrophic environmental losses would see an estimated $23tn wiped off global GDP. Saving global finance is expensive: the 2009 crash saw the Federal Reserve commit $29tn. The backlash to bailing out bankers’ financial scams to protect business as usual, not the climate, does not bear thinking about.

Current policies will not keep warming to within safe limits, because they were never intended to. Global energy-related CO2 emissions are set for their largest annual rise since 2010 this year. There needs to be a philosophical reversal, not least from banker-hugging Boris Johnson, who has no compunction in cutting aid to the world’s poorest countries. This should begin with June’s G7 summit in Cornwall, when debt owed by low-income countries should be written off. Richer countries must make available resources and technology to allow poorer ones to autonomously green themselves. A Cop26 deal requires rich-world concessions. The climate emergency will not be over for anyone until it is over for everyone. Mr Biden has made a definitive break in the US. It’s time to enable others to do the same.

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