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Carbon Emissions could Be Biden’s Ace for Handling China, Republicans

AP file photo
French President Francois Hollande, right, French Foreign Minister and president of the COP21 Laurent Fabius, second, right, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres and United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon applaud after the final conference at the COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change, in Le Bourget, north of Paris, Dec. 12, 2015.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is steadily making preparations so his administration will hit the ground running when he is inaugurated on Jan. 20. Biden recently announced his economic policy team, but if the Republican Party retains a majority in the House of Representatives, partisan gridlock could paralyze Biden’s ability to implement policies. Keio University Prof. Shumpei Takemori, an expert in international economics, gives his insights on what might lie ahead for the incoming president.

It is finally certain that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. Outgoing President Donald Trump continues to assert that the November election’s result was unfair, but the curtain has come down on the extraordinary situation in which he tried to invalidate the result through legal challenges in the courts. Even so, the impact of deeply polarized political divisions will remain.

Although Trump was defeated in the presidential election, his Republican Party holds 50 seats in the 100-seat Senate. The Republicans will hold a majority if they win one of the two Georgia Senate seats that will be decided in runoffs on Jan. 5.

Senate approval is necessary for confirming the appointment of cabinet members and the federal budget. If the Republican Party holds control of the chamber, Biden’s freedom to implement policies as president will be severely hamstrung. This would allow the party to fend off Biden’s demands and plunge U.S. politics into gridlock, which the Republicans could use to their advantage in the 2022 midterm elections.

Biden has two ways to get around this. The first strategy would be to use the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating impact on the economy to convince the U.S. public of the necessity for a massive economic package. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office estimates gross domestic product over the 11 years through 2030 will be ¥820 trillion lower due to fallout from the pandemic.

In March, as the first wave of coronavirus infections swept across the United States, the government passed a ¥200 trillion economic package to support the economy and employment. However, the measures contained in this stimulus package have lapsed. In the months since then, bickering between Democrats and Republicans has intensified, and they have been unable to agree on further economic packages.

U.S. unemployment remains high and a slowdown in economic activity has become evident during the third wave of the pandemic that is currently battering that nation. The number of Americans living in hardship likely will skyrocket unless additional economic measures are implemented. If the Republicans dig in and remain opposed to more economic relief, Biden could pin blame for the tough economic conditions on them.

■ Presidential powers

Biden’s second option is to use the sweeping powers granted to a U.S. president in the fields of diplomacy and national security. The question is where precisely would Biden use these powers.

Trump unapologetically adhered to his “America first” approach and turned his back on multilateralism, free trade expansion, and moves to reduce carbon emissions. On trade, Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, unilaterally imposed tariffs on China and other trade partners, and weakened the World Trade Organization by blocking the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s Appellate Body that settles trade complaints between nations. Trump also withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement that set standards for international action to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.

In stark contrast, Biden has stated he will return to a multilateral approach. Biden does not need Congress to approve a return to these international frameworks; these steps can be taken using his presidential authority. Consequently, it is possible the United States could rejoin the TPP and the WTO’s appeal body could spring back to life.

But Biden faces a problem. The voters who swept Biden to victory include minorities and low-income earners who have missed out on the benefits brought by economic globalization and bristle at the prospect of increased free trade and multilateralism. Can Biden ignore the feelings of these people?

Biden has set a goal of ensuring that the United States achieves zero-net carbon dioxide emissions no later than 2050 and pledged to recommit that nation to the Paris Agreement. The Democratic Party’s liberal wing strongly supports policies that lower carbon emissions, so there will be no political impediment to reentering the Paris pact. For Biden, the tricky part will be locking in a budget for policies designed to cut carbon pollution.

■ Shared awareness

Under the Trump administration, the Republican Party has barely given a look at policies for reducing carbon emissions. In fact, the party has focused on easing legal restrictions on the use of energy sources. If the Republicans stay in control of the Senate, the prospect of money being earmarked for carbon emission-cutting policies is murky at best. However, I believe Biden does have an option here. Biden could explicitly state that achieving zero-net carbon emissions is a U.S. national security policy — and more precisely, a policy for taking on China.

Republicans and Democrats are essentially on the same page when it comes to awareness of the threat China presents. Making zero-net emissions part of a policy for dealing with China could open the door to Senate approval for funds. Presidential powers also can, to a degree, unlock funds for policies affecting national security.

Making this move to slash carbon emissions part of Biden’s China policy is not sophistry. At the U.N. General Assembly in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 — a comment that was this year’s most significant development on environmental matters. This raised the possibility that China could seize the initiative on global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and control the energy market.

The Chinese government has openly protected and supported domestic industries in digital and other high-tech fields, a policy that the United States, European nations and other advanced countries have increasingly lambasted. Europe also accepts the necessity of the United States taking steps to counter China’s industrial policy.

■ Vital market

Even so, China’s carbon dioxide emissions easily eclipse the emissions generated by the United States and the European Union combined. If Beijing does not take action to cut its emissions, global warming will continue unabated. In that sense, the positive steps China is taking are to be welcomed. It is difficult to criticize the Chinese government’s support for industries involved in achieving these emission goals.

The fact that China spews out such massive emissions also means that its market for cutting these emissions is gigantic. China’s high-growth strategy so far has involved securing a huge market, investing heavily in that market and establishing an industrial advantage.

The Chinese government will undoubtedly follow this plan in the “market for achieving carbon neutrality.” It will further support the wind power, solar power, electric vehicle and other industries where it already holds the upper hand, and attempt to build an invincible position in these sectors. This year, the Japanese government also strongly committed to a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. While quickly taking action in this field is part of the government’s economic growth strategy, it also is important from a geopolitical perspective.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has forecast that China will achieve positive economic growth this year, despite being the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. China imposed tough lockdowns to bring the spread of the virus under control. Major countries should continue to jointly and tenaciously hold negotiations with China and ensure fair international rules are established on important issues, including carbon neutrality, support for domestic industries and data protection.

CLIP: Trans-Pacific Partnership

A multilateral agreement that abolished or reduced tariffs and set rules on investment and e-commerce, such as online shopping. The deal initially had 12 member nations, but the U.S. withdrawal has made it 11, including Japan and Canada. Britain has announced it intends to apply to join the TPP in early 2021. Chinese President Xi Jinping also has indicated he is open to joining the pact.

CLIP: World Trade Organization

An international body responsible for setting and enforcing rules that promote free trade. The WTO arbitrates when trade disputes occur between member nations. Launched in January 1995, the WTO is based in Geneva and has 164 member nations and regions.