Four years after President Donald Trump began to pull the US out of the landmark Paris climate agreement, President Joe Biden and his top officials are reengaging with world leaders and making aggressive commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The Biden administration has an unequivocal message at the two-day Leaders Summit on Climate this week: America is back.
The biggest news out of the virtual event was the commitments various countries made to reduce their emissions. At the top, Biden formally pledged America would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2030 — the most ambitious target the US has set to date. Still, as Vox’s Umair Irfan laid out, some believe the goal is not big enough given the sheer scale of the current climate crisis and the pace of warming.
The message from Biden and US climate envoy John Kerry throughout the two days was that the US cannot do this alone. Historically, the US is the biggest emitter of carbon, and America is currently the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, after China.
“America represents less than 15 percent of the world’s emissions,” Biden said Thursday. “No nation can solve this crisis on [their] own, as I know you all fully understand. All of us — and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies — we have to step up.”
Targets announced by other nations were more modest. The big pledge from Chinese President Xi Jinping is to reduce coal consumption between 2026 and 2030. But Xi’s announcement was short on specifics, and China’s overall targets — hitting peak carbon emissions by 2030 before getting to net-zero emissions by 2060 — remained unchanged.
Even if the pledges from the US and other countries were broadly encouraging, the real test of whether these countries will actually make good on them is yet to come. Many are putting economic growth first after a year of stagnation due to the Covid-19 pandemic; air pollution levels are already soaring again in China.
Biden and his climate team face another big deadline with the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, set for November in Glasgow.
For now, here are the winners and losers from the first big climate change summit of the Biden era.
Winner: Joe Biden
After four years of climate policy languishing under Trump, Joe Biden was determined to send a message: Climate is the centerpiece of his economic agenda.
“When people talk about climate, I think jobs,” Biden said during his Thursday speech. “Within our climate response lies an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity ready to be fired up.”
A somewhat unlikely climate champion after years as a political moderate, Biden came into office with a number of big climate and clean energy goals. On his first day in office, he reentered the US into the Paris climate agreement and issued a flurry of executive orders to accelerate the transition off fossil fuels, protect biodiversity, and address environmental injustice.
To underscore America’s renewed commitment, Biden this week announced an ambitious new nationally determined contribution (NDC). Actually getting there will require a massive transformation of the US economy toward clean energy and a big investment in electric vehicles.
This very concept — rerouting the American economy to be powered by wind, solar, nuclear, and other renewables — is the big idea in Biden’s economic vision. He’s pledged 100 percent of America’s energy to be carbon-free by 2035, and his infrastructure and jobs plan calls for a clean electricity standard, tax credits to accelerate wind and solar development, and $174 billion to be put into electric vehicle infrastructure alone.
But Biden also has a challenging road ahead in actually implementing this policy; he needs Congress to pass it. He can certainly direct his agencies to tighten vehicle emission standards and use the power of federal procurement to help get the US there, but passing his infrastructure plan is crucial for reaching the goals.
“That one package doesn’t make or break the 50 percent target,” Nathan Hultman, the director of the University of Maryland’s Center on Global Sustainability, told Vox. But “it’s certainly extraordinarily helpful. There’s no doubt.”
Negotiations are already underway on Biden’s infrastructure plan, and the next few months could determine exactly how bold the US goes on clean energy. But Biden’s pledge was a good start. —Ella Nilsen
Winner: Climate activists
It’s hard to imagine President Biden choosing to hold this summit or to center his economic agenda on climate change without the persistent pressure of a wide range of climate activists — young and old, in the US and around the world. In the past few years, they have doggedly and persuasively demanded that world leaders increase their ambition and follow through on climate plans.
Biden’s climate summit and the new pledges are examples of the success of applying that pressure.
The breakout star of Biden’s climate summit is 19-year-old climate justice activist and organizer with Fridays for Future Xiye Bastida. In fiery remarks delivered during a session on climate solutions, Bastida, who relocated to New York from Mexico with her family at the age of 11 when they were displaced by drought and floods, demanded governments act decisively using the tools available to end the climate emergency.
When pushed to address Bastida’s concerns at a press conference following the summit, climate envoy Kerry said President Biden’s climate summit is a big step in the right direction. “Is it enough? No. But it’s the best we can do today.”
Bastida clearly had made an impression. Speaking at a White House press conference later on Thursday, Kerry described her impassioned plea as “profoundly meaningful” and “moving.”
“That’s where a lot of the younger generation is today, appropriately,” Kerry said. “Pretty upset at the adults — the alleged adults — who are not getting their act together to make happen what needs to happen.”
In the US, the Sunrise Movement is sure to continue to push the Biden administration to scale up its infrastructure plan. And activists around the world will maintain pressure on world leaders in the buildup to COP26 in Glasgow. —Jariel Arvin
Loser: John Kerry’s faith in markets
US climate envoy John Kerry is enormously optimistic about what’s happening in the private sector around clean energy.
Talking to reporters at a Thursday White House briefing, Kerry said that even if another Trump-like politician comes along with regressive climate policies, it won’t necessarily matter. His reasoning? The market is trending too much toward clean energy to go back.
“No politician, no matter how demagogic or how potent and capable they are, is going to be able to change what that market is doing, because it will have moved,” Kerry said, pointing in particular to the heavy demand for Tesla’s electric cars in the US. “It’ll have four years of entrenchment. And those jobs will be there.”
This is not the first time Kerry’s faith in markets has come up. In remarks to the Institute of International Finance, Kerry said he believed “no government is going to solve this problem” of climate change, adding, “Solutions are going to come from the private sector.”
Kerry has good reason to feel this way. The cost of renewable energy has fallen sharply over the past few years; it’s now cheaper than fossil fuels.
“The costs have plummeted quite rapidly, they’ve gone faster than expected,” Hultman told Vox. “You actually have a lot of choices that are clean, at the same cost, [or] sometimes lower costs than alternate, dirtier technologies.”
But Kerry’s faith in the private sector as the silver bullet is somewhat naive. The private sector is an important partner to meet ambitious climate goals, but it will also take serious investment across all levels of government to get there.
Having lived through the Trump years, members of the Biden administration seem very aware that progress can be short-lived. They want to get shovels in the ground on projects and build out physical infrastructure like 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, offshore wind turbines, and solar farms before another US leader tries to go in the opposite direction.
Furthermore, the market forces at play now happened in part due to government intervention. Investment and production tax credits in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill spurred tremendous development in renewables. The low cost of solar panels didn’t happen in a vacuum. “It was driven, at every stage, by smart public policy,” Dave Roberts wrote for Vox in 2015.
The private sector can be an important partner in combating climate change. But plenty of experts warn it needs strong signals from the highest levels of government, and it can’t be implicitly trusted to do the right thing. —EN
Loser: The coal industry
One message came out loud and clear from the summit: In a world committed to climate action, government support for coal power is rapidly waning.
In the United States, where the coal industry is being pushed out of the market by cheaper energy sources, there are 191 plants still operating. To hit Biden’s target of reducing greenhouse gas pollution by 50 percent, it’s likely that all of them will have to shutter before 2030. That is the conclusion of multiple studies on the paths to reach Biden’s goal, including from the environmental groups Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, the research groups Energy Innovation and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the coalition America Is All In.
According to Energy Innovation, “Without eliminating coal emissions by 2030, achieving US emission reductions in line with a 50 percent reduction is impossible.” Even the United Mine Workers, the major labor group representing coal miners, has acknowledged that reality by embracing Biden’s infrastructure package — and a transition to clean energy — in the days leading up to the summit.
His plan already asks Congress to pass a national clean energy standard that would raise utilities’ renewable targets and ratchet down their coal and gas dependency by a deadline of 2035. And his EPA is already working to prepare new power plant regulations that take the place of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and the weak Trump rule that the courts struck down.
But coal’s decline hasn’t been as swift in many other parts of the world, where renewable energy and natural gas have been slower to replace it. In major economies like China, India, Japan, and Indonesia, governments have continued to rely on coal — and finance the development of new plants overseas.
That’s why several new commitments to phase out coal consumption and financing at the summit are so notable. China’s President Xi reiterated his country’s goal to hit peak pollution sometime before 2030 but elaborated for the first time on a specific timeline for the coal industry. In China’s next five-year economic plan, from 2026 to 2030, it would “strictly limit” the increase in its consumption of coal, he said. Another major announcement came from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who said the country would cut off all overseas financing of coal.
None of this means coal will disappear overnight. But major world leaders signaling the demise of coal and coal financing is a clear sign the fuel is becoming a smaller fraction of the world’s energy mix. —Rebecca Leber
Winner: Countries rich in tropical forests
Even as economies slowed last year from the pandemic, tropical deforestation worldwide paced ahead — jumping 12 percent, compared to 2019. And that number came with a big toll on the climate: carbon emissions equal to roughly double the annual tailpipe emissions of cars in the US, according to the World Resources Institute. A large chunk of those emissions can be tied to Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bolivia, which saw the highest rates of deforestation last year.
Enter a new coalition, launched Thursday, that seeks to funnel at least $1 billion in payments to countries that show they’re preventing tropical deforestation and its associated emissions. The US, Britain, and Norway are driving the effort along with a number of major corporations, including Amazon, Nestlé, Unilever, and Salesforce, forming what the group called “one of the largest ever public-private efforts to help protect tropical forests.”
“Bringing together government and private-sector resources is a necessary step in supporting the large-scale efforts that must be mobilized to halt deforestation and begin to restore tropical and subtropical forests,” Kerry said in a statement when the group, known as the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance Coalition (LEAF), was announced Thursday.
Under the project, countries, states, or provinces in tropical forest countries would receive money after proving they reduced deforestation or forest degradation. Each ton of avoided carbon emissions would yield a carbon credit worth at least $10 that companies could then buy to offset their own emissions (though, as the press release states, corporate “contributions to the LEAF Coalition come in addition to, and not as a substitute for, internal emissions reductions”).
The initiative is similar to an existing and complicated effort, known as REDD+, that involves high-income countries paying lower-income nations for avoided emissions from deforestation. REDD+ has been criticized for doing little to curb forest loss since it was set up more than a decade ago.
LEAF differs in that it involves private companies, but the effort could face similar challenges, such as in proving what’s called “additionality” — that deforestation would have occurred had it not been for a country’s efforts. Some environmental groups have also pointed out that $1 billion isn’t much and said the project won’t work unless Indigenous land rights are recognized and enforced.
“Rich countries and corporations are getting a bargain,” Savio Carvalho, global campaign lead for biodiversity at Greenpeace International, said in a statement. “One billion dollars is a drop in the bucket when governments are spending trillions to support sectors that are destroying nature and our climate.” —Benji Jones
In the days leading up to the summit, House Republicans halfheartedly and unsuccessfully tried to reverse the cemented narrative that their official climate platform is to deny scientific reality. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy published a video touting the Energy Innovation Agenda, a package of “dozens of bills and solutions” the GOP has to address climate change and infrastructure as a counterpoint to Biden’s agenda.
Democrats say Republicans aren’t serious about climate change. That is simply not true.— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) April 19, 2021
Republican solutions will make American energy cleaner, more affordable, and more accessible to reduce emissions around the world.
The campaign launched at a time when GOP lawmakers are realizing that climate denial and foot-dragging are poor politics, especially when it comes to appealing to a younger conservative base that wants to see a plan to combat the crisis.
But the Republican proposals only offer piecemeal solutions, like planting more trees, managing forests, and extending tax credits for technological innovation like carbon capture. And there’s more of the same in their broader messaging, like their continued opposition to the Paris climate agreement. The agenda introduced by McCarthy and 40 fellow Republicans just reiterates that fossil fuels remain the centerpiece in the GOP’s vision of the American economy, and no number of trees planted will offset that.
Republicans’ too-little-too-late push is a reminder to the global community of how unserious the party remains on climate change and that it intends to continue the isolationist policies of the Trump administration rather than broker international agreement.
Even members of the Republican Party who have urged their counterparts to take climate change seriously for years found the proposals lacking. As Bob Inglis, a former Republican Congress member who has devoted his work to advancing conservative climate solutions, told E&E News’s Nick Sobczyk, “It’s true that Republicans are taking small steps and basically testing the waters with their base, and that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with, and I assume that world leaders would see that.” —RL
Winner: The natural gas industry
While the summit attendees sent a clear signal that coal is on the way out, they were far more lukewarm on another major contributor to climate change: natural gas. To hit the world’s 1.5 degree Celsius target, we’ll have to rein in methane, a type of greenhouse gas that is especially effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere and dangerous for global warming. While methane can come from a variety of sources, such as agriculture and landfills, environmentalists see regulating the oil and gas sector as the first place to start, by keeping the gas in the ground.
Yet the industry seemed to get a pass at the summit — most leaders sidestepped methane and natural gas entirely in their speeches and announcements. Surprisingly, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who drew the most attention to methane but stopped short of offering concrete commitments to halt plans to build natural gas pipelines. The less focus from world leaders on the oil and gas industry’s methane problems, the better, from the eyes of the industry, because it signals that there won’t be more regulation coming anytime soon.
In the US, addressing methane is critical to meet Biden’s goal of slashing greenhouse pollution by 2030, but Biden has only offered a few clues for how his administration plans to tackle it. The fact sheet from the White House on Biden’s target only gives methane a brief and vague mention, saying, “The United States will also reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases, including methane, hydrofluorocarbons, and other potent short-lived climate pollutants.” The nonprofit Clean Air Task Force has urged the US to adopt a target of reducing oil and gas emissions to 65 percent below its 2012 levels by 2025.
Regulation in the US is still coming. Biden’s new EPA administrator Michael Regan promised the administration will roll out more aggressive policies to curb existing and new natural gas methane leaks than the Obama administration and plans to unveil its plans sometime by September.
But the overall silence at the summit still signals that the world is not yet ready to ditch natural gas as quickly as it plans to ditch coal. —RL
Loser: The goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius
The 2015 Paris climate agreement has a topline goal of limiting the increase in global average temperatures this century to below 2 degrees Celsius, but it also has a secondary, more ambitious target of keeping warming below 1.5°C.
Back in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out a major report looking at just how hard it would be to meet the 1.5°C target. It found that every degree of warming matters, with higher temperatures extracting a higher human and economic toll. The report concluded that to reach this goal, the world has until 2030 to slash greenhouse gas emissions by half or more from present.
And 1.5°C is hardly a “safe” climate. The world has already warmed by at least 1°C on average, and the effects have been devastating. The longer the world waits to act to limit emissions, the harder it will get.
The new US climate target — a 50 to 52 percent cut in emissions relative to 2005 by 2030 — “looks like it is consistent” with the 1.5°C goal, according to a senior White House official on a call with reporters on Wednesday. But according to Climate Action Tracker, a US commitment in line with this target would actually need a 57 to 63 percent cut.
Many other countries have also said they are using 1.5°C as their benchmark for their climate commitments. Rhetorically, it seems there is widespread support for being more ambitious. However, it’s clear there’s a cavernous rift between commitments and actions. Global greenhouse gas emissions have only grown since the 2018 IPCC report. While there was a lull in this growth last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, emissions are poised to rebound around the world, including in the US, as economies reopen.
So now the world has to make even more drastic cuts to greenhouse gases — and in less time. It’s easy to paint a target years into the future. It’s much harder to take aim today. And right now, that target is nowhere in our sights. —Umair Irfan