Climate change, SDG impacts of US election

As President-Elect Joe Biden prepares the next administration, there are implications for action in Australia as well as for achieving greater alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As of publication, Biden and Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris are building their transition teams and assembling the future cabinet. The Republican Party looked on track to retain control of the Senate, while the Democratic Party retained control of the House, with precise numbers of the party splits still being settled.

Biden has pledged to take a number of executive actions, such as bringing the US back into the Paris Agreement. This will bring new impetus to address climate change, and also risks seeing Australia left behind, said Jane Rennie, general manager external affairs, CPA Australia.

"The climate emergency is as much of a health and economic issue as the pandemic and requires a global commitment every bit as great to address it," Rennie said. "The election of Joe Biden to the US presidency is a game-changer for climate policy and if the Australian government doesn't adjust its thinking, we will be on the wrong team."

Rennie warns that "if Australia were to be regarded as recalcitrant on climate change, we may be vulnerable to trade and other sanctions applied by countries which have adopted more aggressive emissions reductions policies."

The Australian government and the European Union (EU) are in latter stages of negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) that will not only serve to strengthen trade between the two economies, but also contains language with specific reference to commitments from both sides around the Sustainable Development Goals, climate change, environmental and labour standards, for example.

The Business Council on Sustainable Development Australia (BCSDA) recently applied the SDGs to policies outlined by Biden during the presidential campaign. BCSDA found alignments to every SDG, from health implications from the COVID-19 pandemic and Biden's commitments to shore up and expand the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to gender inequality, with the US being the only OECD country not offering paid parental leave, and of course action on climate.

"It is important to look at system change - whether that's the energy system, the geopolitical, the national system, and the fiscal system," said Andrew Petersen, BCSDA CEO. "A stakeholder capitalism approach will play an increasingly important role in how business operates within that approach."

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have revealed vulnerabilities in systems all over the world, increasing inequality and showing that "major destructions can snowball through these interconnected systems," Petersen noted. But by applying an SDG lens to the system shock in a political system can allow for a reframing of the narrative and the ability to build new resiliency in natural systems, energy systems, political and healthcare systems, among others, Petersen said.

Petersen cited specific commitments that Biden has made to roll back decisions made by President Donald Trump, as well as a new tone in foreign relations, but Petersen also noted that the language deployed by Biden around economics, environmental justice, and wider social justice issues is aiming towards a more systems-level capacity building.

"What does that mean for business" Petersen said. "If a political system begins to think about issues in the long term, as we're seeing from this first analysis we've done, business itself will start to think about that as well."

That could also rebound to decisions and policies in Australia as well, he added.

"There is the national interest in the future health of our society," Petersen said. "The health, wellbeing, future economic capacity and ability to withstand the next shock. That might be climate change, it might be the next bushfire season or the next flood season. We need to look at it from the perspective of resilience and build it out, rather than just respond to the individual incidents."

Rennie echoed that point, noting that new energy at the global energy should lift Australia's ambitions as well.

"Australia is particularly prone to accelerating biodiversity loss and natural disasters associated with climate change," she noted. "Setting an appropriately ambitious and internationally comparative emissions reductions target is consistent with the views expressed in the Royal Commission into National Natural Disasters Arrangements."

Read more: BCSDAPresident-Elect Joe BidenAndrew PetersenCPA AustraliaJane RennieParis Agreement
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