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Biden’s climate leadership will be tested at the Earth Day summit

China, Russia, and India may be reluctant to reengage on US terms at the climate summit.

US President Joe Biden waves from Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on March 16.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday, President Joe Biden will try to pull off some diplomatic gymnastics: hosting a Leaders Summit on Climate to convince countries to take bolder action on climate change, while the US is still very much rebuilding its own climate credibility after the Trump years.

During his presidency, Donald Trump tore down dozens of environmental regulations and withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement, undermining global progress to reduce emissions.

“[Biden] comes into this summit with the need to repair US credibility after four years of a president who denied the existence of climate change and did everything in his power to undermine the programs in the US that were attempting to reduce emissions,” said John Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress and former climate adviser to President Obama, during a press briefing.

To show that the US has indeed shifted course, Biden will be releasing a new 2030 climate target ahead of the event, and the administration has pledged that it will be “ambitious.”

The summit will be one of the drumbeats crescendoing to the big UN climate conference of the year: COP 26, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. Under the Paris agreement, all countries are supposed to submit new climate targets before the conference — five years after the first targets were set when the deal was signed.

The goal is to collectively put the world on track to prevent a 1.5-degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels.

The US State Department described the summit as an opportunity for the 40 invited leaders to reveal new targets in line with that goal. Some US allies are expected to do so, while others, including China, Russia, and Brazil, appear reluctant to return to US-centric climate diplomacy or to step up climate action alongside their peers.

The pageantry surrounding climate action can seem endless, but as the US retakes the global stage, this summit will be an important measure of its commitment and influence on climate action globally.

The US and other major emitters will drop new climate targets

The level of ambition in the new US 2030 climate target is likely to be the most consequential news coming out of the summit.

In 2015, then-President Obama set the first US climate target under the Paris agreement (a Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC): to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025. The US is currently on track to meet that goal due to the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on emissions, but it is far from what climate scientists say is required. To keep the 1.5 Celsius target alive, countries need to cut emissions nearly in half by 2030, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Biden administration is likely to aim for that high mark. According to Bloomberg, officials are eyeing a target to reduce emissions somewhere between 48 and 53 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. That would put the US in the running with the most ambitious nations.

The next highest emitter, the European Union, has proposed 51 percent cuts from 2005 levels while the UK has proposed a more ambitious goal of 63 percent. (The various baseline years each country uses to set their climate goals makes comparisons difficult, but the Rhodium Group calibrated them — see the chart below.)

A bar chart showing NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) reduction levels for the US and other advanced economies from a 1990, 2005, and 2010 baseline.
NDC reduction levels for the US, the EU, and other advanced economies.
Rhodium Group

Thousands of scientists, hundreds of executives from major corporations, and environmental organizations back a US target of at least 50 percent. A coalition of international development groups, however, argues that the US should cut its emissions by at least 70 percent to account for its outsized responsibility for climate change as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the last century.

Whatever the level of ambition the Biden administration commits to, the White House is limited by what will be feasible under the constraints of US politics, and specifically Congress. Hitting 50 percent cuts is within the realm of possibility according to recent studies — some show that it is even possible without federal legislation approved by both the House and Senate, although new legislation would certainly significantly boost chances of success.

Beyond the big reveal of the US target, other announcements to watch for include new 2030 targets from Canada, Japan, and South Korea. Environmental groups are calling for all these big economies to join the 50 percent cluband Japan, at least, is expected to do so, the New York Times reported.

Some nations are likely to be conspicuously quiet at the summit

New targets from the US and its allies could help resurrect the Paris agreement and make the summit a success, but the virtual gathering will also shine a light on the global laggards — those who simply do not want to play by the US’s rules.

In the lead-up to the summit, China has clearly expressed that it will not readily realign with a US vision of climate cooperation between the two nations. President Xi Jinping has yet to confirm that he will even attend the summit. “China is not and won’t be the ‘attendant’ of US-centered climate campaign,” according to an article published on Wednesday in the state-owned Global Times, summarizing the viewpoint of several Chinese academics.

During the Trump years, Xi continued to commit to tackling climate change and made a surprise announcement that China would strive to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 at the UN General Assembly last September. Xi also announced new NDC goals in December, but China hasn’t formally submitted those targets to the UN, so they could still change.

US Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry took a last-minute trip to Shanghai last week to try to convince his counterparts to jump on the US bandwagon. China’s official rhetoric remained critical of the US during his visit:

“It was the US that announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 and stopped implementing its NDCs, which held the world back from achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters on Friday.

Ultimately, Kerry’s trip yielded a rare statement of cooperation between the two economic rivals, including an agreement to enhance their respective climate actions to “raise ambition in the 2020s.”

Li Shuo, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, noted that Xi could still make an announcement containing new climate targets on China’s turf ahead of the summit at the Boao Forum, often called China’s World Economic Forum.

However, it will be difficult politically for China to change its climate targets, which it formalized in its 14th Five-Year Plan in March, according to a former senior State Department official who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. It is possible that China could announce a new goal outside of the scope of the 14th Five-Year Plan, such as ending its financing of overseas coal plants or curbing non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, they said, but expectations are limited for what China will serve up at this summit.

It’s not just China — other major economies are approaching the summit with some hesitancy or outright denial. In a visit to India last week, Kerry lobbied the country to set a net-zero emissions goal, but no announcements were made. Instead, India’s Minister of Environment commented on the importance of action from the world’s biggest historical emitters.

Russia, freshly sanctioned by the US over the SolarWinds hack, will attend the summit but appears to have no interest in raising its weak climate goals. If Russia remains recalcitrant, the country could endanger the Paris targets, given that it is the world’s fifth-largest emitter.

Meanwhile, Brazil, the seventh-largest emitter, has also been pushing back on the US ahead of the talks. The two countries have been negotiating a deal to stop deforestation in the Amazon, but Reuters reported that a final settlement was not expected by the summit. Brazil has asked for $1 billion in foreign aid upfront while US representatives have insisted that they will only pay once they see progress, namely a decline in deforestation this year.

The other side of climate leadership: climate finance

Leaders from small island and low-income nations, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and the Marshall Islands, were also invited to attend the summit. One of their key concerns is expected to be the shortfall in climate aid from developed countries, said Robert Bradley, the director of knowledge and learning at the NDC Partnership, which helps developing countries establish and pursue climate targets.

“The whole Paris agreement is based on a quid pro quo,” he said: Developing countries are expected to reduce emissions alongside developed countries, but in return, they are entitled to financial support. In 2009, developed countries pledged that they would be marshal $100 billion a year in climate finance for these countries, but they’ve fallen short.

During his presidency, Obama agreed to provide $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund, which supports developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation projects, but Trump did not deliver the outstanding $2 billion. Last week in his budget proposal, Biden slated $1.2 billion for the fund. “It is certainly very helpful,” said Bradley, “I don’t think anybody is going to argue that on its own it’s enough.”

A man and woman ride their bike through flooded streets.
A man and woman ride their bike through the flooded streets of La Lima, Honduras, on November 11, 2020, after Hurricane Iota brought catastrophic rainfall to the country.
Seth Sidney Berry/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

With low-income countries facing increased economic strife due to the pandemic, support is needed more urgently than ever.

“These are countries in some cases have hundreds of millions in population so could well be the major emitters of the future if we don’t help them get on the right development path,” said Bradley, adding, “done right, they can use cleaner technology and more resilient investments to lift millions out of poverty and improve the lives of their populations.”

Additional finance announcements are expected at the summit. South Korea is reportedly planning to announce a ban on coal financing, which would be significant as the country has been the third-largest financier of overseas coal projects. The US Treasury Department will also release a full climate finance strategy, which will shed more light on how the country intends to assist other nations.

To see whether leaders live up to the “climate leader” title, you can tune in to the virtual summit here on Thursday and Friday.

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