clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Biden heads into international climate negotiations with a weak hand

American politics are undermining the global fight against climate change — again.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the 26th UN climate conference in Glasgow on November 1. It’s the most critical meeting for the world to show progress on climate change since the 2015 Paris agreement.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

On the opening day of the 26th international climate conference in Glasgow, President Joe Biden’s pitch to the world was, more or less, to trust that the US would lead on the climate crisis. Biden originally hoped to arrive in Scotland with a pair of laws in hand that marked the US’s most significant investment ever in the climate crisis. Instead, he brought a smattering of executive actions and pledges, while his main agenda remains a moving target in Congress.

It’s almost exactly a year since the Trump administration officially, though temporarily, withdrew the US from the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Since Biden’s inauguration, the new administration has had nine months to piece together a plan for the climate negotiations in Glasgow that shows the US is making concrete progress on its domestic pollution.

The US has a singular responsibility to lead: It is second in global climate pollution after China, but far and away responsible for the largest share of cumulative emissions. Since 1850, the US has released a fifth of all carbon emissions, far ahead of every other country, according to an analysis by the research group Carbon Brief.

But US political polarization remains one of the biggest obstacles to global action. The US has never come to an international conference with a comprehensive climate agenda backed by Congress, mostly because Republican lawmakers have refused to negotiate on a serious action plan. So Democrats have banked on passing Biden’s climate plans in the Build Back Better agenda with a simple Senate majority. Their bet on reconciliation has put a good portion of Biden’s climate agenda in the hands of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who is personally invested in the coal industry.

So Biden brings a mixed bag of promises to Glasgow. The administration does not have a signed, final law from Congress that backs up his words with billions of dollars in funding. What he has are ambitious promises of slashing pollution in half by 2030, quadrupling international aid, and helping countries adapt to the impacts of climate change. Most of that will depend on Congress following through, and a successful regulatory agenda that survives Supreme Court scrutiny.

Success in tackling the climate crisis depends heavily on countries coming forward with their strongest possible domestic climate plans, and strengthening those commitments as countries hammer out the rules for carrying out the Paris climate targets. Biden wants to make the strongest presentation possible, showing the world an about-face from Trump administration policies, even while he’s hamstrung by domestic tensions.

Here is what the US brings to the table in Glasgow, along with the unfinished business that depends heavily on what happens in Congress and the Supreme Court:

  • A 2030 target and long-term strategy for 2050

Biden has pledged to slash domestic climate pollution in half by 2030 from its peak level in 2005. Domestic climate pollution has fallen by less than 22 percent since 2005, but the US will still need to eliminate more than 1.7 billion metric tons in the next decade (for comparison, the US released 6.6 billion metric tons in carbon dioxide in 2019). The White House claims this matches the ambition of 65 percent of countries that have made pledges that are in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. However, the independent Climate Action Tracker says it still falls behind what’s needed to truly limit warming, roughly matching the European Union and Japan’s targets, but ahead of “critically insufficient” pledges from countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia.

In addition to Biden’s 2030 target, he has also put forward a longer-term strategy outlining a plan for deeper greenhouse gas cuts to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.

  • $555 billion in climate funding that delivers more than a gigaton of pollution cuts in the next decade

While the 2030 and 2050 pledges rank among some of the most ambitious national goals in the world, they are purely symbolic without congressional action backing them. There are two bills in Congress that would slash domestic pollution in the power and transportation sectors, but the bulk of the climate benefits are in the Build Back Better bill’s $555 billion investments.

“It’s the largest investment to combat the climate crisis in American history,” White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy said in a Sunday press call. “And it’s going to let us reduce emissions well over a gigaton — that’s 1 billion metric tons — in 2030.”

The bill still faces an uncertain fate: House Democrats may hold a vote for the Build Back Better bill this week, but the bill can’t pass the Senate as long as Sen. Joe Manchin is not on board.

  • Quadrupling international climate aid

As Vox’s Umair Irfan explained, “It’s expensive to build resilience to climate change and shift from fossil fuels toward clean energy, particularly for developing countries.” As the world’s biggest polluter, the US is morally bound to help poorer countries take action. But there’s a practical reason, too: The world will fail to address the crisis if only rich countries slash emissions.

That’s one of the reasons why, ahead of the conference, Biden promised to quadruple US international climate finance from Obama-era levels, and ramp up to more than $11 billion annually by 2024. This is another pledge that will depend on Congress’s willingness to approve the funding request.

Overall, the world is falling far short of its goal set in the Paris climate talks of delivering $100 billion in annual global climate finance. Lower-income countries depend on this funding to adapt and prepare for the worst of climate change.

  • A new initiative focused on adaptation to climate impacts, tripling funding

At Glasgow, Biden announced a new program, the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE), amounting to $3 billion to prepare “those most vulnerable to climate change worldwide” and coordinate efforts to help more than half a billion people worldwide adapt to and manage the impacts of climate catastrophes.

As outlined, the program would include a mix of executive action, combining US research and expertise to help global communities develop plans for climate change, along with funding from Congress that delivers additional aid.

  • Stepping up regulations on superpollutants

Other dangerous pollutants besides carbon dioxide are contributing to global warming. This year, the Environmental Protection Agency has finally made some progress in regulating some of them. In September, it finalized a rule that would cut a powerful class of superpollutants used in cooling and refrigerants, called hydrofluorocarbons, by 85 percent before 2036.

On Tuesday, the EPA proposed a major new rule that would slash emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, from existing oil and gas operations. The rule would cut 74 percent of methane pollution from these wells by 2030 compared to 2005, according to the agency. The rule is central to Biden’s aim of slashing overall methane emissions by 30 percent by the end of the decade. Methane comes from other sources besides natural gas operations, like agriculture and landfills, but the gas industry is the largest source in the US and the easiest to tackle first.

Even with these new EPA actions, Biden’s agenda faces huge roadblocks ahead: It’s unclear whether Democrats will come around on his legislation — and it may face even more obstacles after 2022 if Republicans take control of either congressional chamber in the midterm election.

Second, the new conservative majority in the Supreme Court could deliver a catastrophic blow to Biden’s climate plans. On Friday, the court agreed to review a decision made by a federal appeals court that struck down Trump’s climate rollbacks in the power sector. If the Supreme Court narrows the EPA’s powers to regulate carbon pollution, it could deliver a permanent blow to Biden’s and future presidents’ ability to tackle climate change.

Finally, the Biden administration itself has delivered some mixed signals on its commitments to take the climate crisis seriously. For example, right before Glasgow, Biden had urged G20 countries to boost their oil production in response to rising oil prices.

All of these threaten to undermine Biden’s promises to the world in Glasgow. Despite the uncertain road ahead, Biden made a case for the strongest possible action now. “None of us can escape the worst is yet to come if we fail to seize this moment,” he said. “We’re standing at an inflection point in world history.”

Update, November 2, 10:15 am: The story was updated to include the Biden administration’s EPA methane regulation announced Tuesday morning.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.