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Biden says America is doing its part to prevent “climate hell.” Is it?

At the COP27 UN climate talks, Biden says America will put “our money where our mouth is.”

Two men watch President Joe Biden speak on a large screen. Behind Biden is a blue background with the UN climate change and COP logos.
In his speech on Friday, President Joe Biden said the US is stepping up its efforts to finance climate change mitigation and adaptation around the world.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Friday told international climate negotiators in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, that the US is backing its promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions with action and, crucially, with money.

“We’re racing forward to do our part to prevent climate hell,” Biden said. “We’re not ignoring harbingers that are already here.”

At the meeting, known as COP27, Biden announced new funding initiatives and partnerships including $100 million for global adaptation to climate change, $150 million for disaster emergency response across Africa, and $250 million for clean energy investment support in Egypt.

The US, as a wealthy country, the largest greenhouse gas emitter in history, and currently the world’s second-largest source of emissions, plays an outsize role at these climate meetings. Many other governments follow the US’s lead in their own ambitions.

And while Biden is pledging more support, analysts say that it’s still not in line with the US’s share of contributions to climate change.

However, the US isn’t the only major player at COP27, and this year, the leaders of China and India, respectively the largest and third-largest emitters, were no-shows. Negotiators also have to contend with new hurdles to climate action. The summit comes amid conflicts that have raised energy prices and fueled high inflation rates around the world. “Against this backdrop, it’s more urgent than ever that we double down on our climate commitments,” Biden said.

For the countries that remain zeroed in on climate change following yet another year of disasters worsened by rising temperatures, the concern is not just money, but justice. Developing countries want those that added the most to rising average temperatures to compensate people who contributed less but are now facing rising sea levels and more extreme weather. Some are calling for reparations. So putting more money on the table will be critical to getting every country to curb their contributions to climate change and limit warming.

Over the next week of climate talks in Egypt, the questions of liability for losses and climate justice will likely remain a contentious issue in negotiations. It’s not clear yet whether other countries will be inspired by the US to raise their climate change commitments. And while lots of action and money have been pledged already, the problem is still getting worse.

US climate change actions are stronger than ever. The economy could still derail them.

Biden is still in the process of rebuilding trust with other countries since the Trump administration pulled back from international cooperation on climate change. One of President Biden’s first acts in office was to rejoin the Paris climate agreement after his predecessor withdrew. “I apologize we ever pulled out of the agreement,” he told delegates in Egypt.

Since then, with executive action and with legislation, Biden has advanced a number of key climate change policies. The US set a tougher new target for cutting its greenhouse gas emissions: a 50 to 52 percent reduction relative to 2005 levels by 2030.

To meet this goal, the administration has targeted potent greenhouse gases like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). In October, Biden signed the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which commits the US to phasing out the use of these chemicals, often used as refrigerants.

Using executive authority, Biden has also directed government agencies to account for climate risks in contracting and in financing. He imposed new clean energy and energy efficiency purchasing requirements for the government while setting new targets for clean vehicles and ecosystem conservation.

Shortly before Biden’s speech, the Environmental Protection Agency announced stronger standards to limit emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The regulations would cut methane emissions 87 percent below 2005 levels from regulated sources by 2030, according to the EPA.

The US has also passed big climate legislation. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law allocated billions of dollars to clean energy projects, including $7.5 billion for electric vehicle chargers, $39 billion for public transit, and $65 billion to upgrade the power grid to better deliver renewable energy and resist disasters like wildfires.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed this summer and called “the biggest, most important climate bill in the history of our country,” contains $369 billion to pay for EV tax credits, renewable energy, and battery manufacturing. The law is projected to cut US greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

So Biden arrived in Egypt with a much stronger climate résumé than he did at the last climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland. “The United States government is putting our money where our mouth is,” Biden said.

But global greenhouse gas emissions are poised to rise again this year. They need to fall rapidly in order to meet the goalposts of the Paris climate agreement, keeping the rise in global average temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) this century. US emissions have declined, but not by enough.

Chart showing US Greenhouse gas emissions over time
US greenhouse gas emissions are not declining fast enough to meet its climate goals.
Environmental Protection Agency

Inflation, supply chain disruptions, high energy prices, or a recession could further impair efforts to do more. Congress remains a hurdle too. Even with Democratic control over the past two years, Biden saw much of his climate agenda watered down. If the balance of power shifts away from Democrats, Biden will have far fewer options to ratchet down emissions.

Finance is critical to solving climate change, but the US is still falling short in its obligations to other countries

At the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, rich countries promised they would contribute $100 billion per year by 2020 to a fund that would help less-wealthy countries transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change.

But that money never materialized. Last year, Biden promised more than $11 billion in international climate finance by 2024, but Congress only appropriated $1 billion.

This year, wealthy countries are under even more pressure to live up to that commitment, said Gaia Larsen, director of climate finance access and deployment at the World Resources Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank. In particular, financing conversations have revolved around the idea of loss and damage — helping countries pay for rebuilding after climate disasters.

“The concept is essentially asking who’s going to pay for what was lost,” Larsen said. Developing countries — Pakistan, for example, which experienced devastating floods earlier this year — are responsible for far fewer emissions than developed countries but experience outsized climate impacts. “These countries aren’t really responsible for the problems they’re facing. So it’s at least a moral obligation to contribute to helping them.”

A recent analysis from CarbonBrief shows the United States, like many other developed nations, is falling far behind what researchers have determined would be its “fair share” of climate financing, as determined by the amount of emissions it has produced over history. Its shortfall matches its outsized impact; the US should be paying $40 billion toward the $100 billion target every year, but only contributed $8 billion in 2020, the latest year for which data is available.

When former President Trump pulled the country out of major climate agreements, other developed nations took leadership on climate financing matters in the hope that the United States would step up in later years. The US’s new climate commitments close some of this gap, but Congress will still have to appropriate more cash. Some countries, like Germany, France, and Japan, have even given more than their fair share to the fund.

Biden hinted that the US could do more, noting that helping other countries transition to clean energy is a pillar of the US response to climate change. “Good climate policy is good economic policy,” Biden said. “If countries can finance coal in developing countries, there’s no reason we can’t finance clean energy in developing countries.”

He also emphasized that the status quo is untenable. Global dependence on fossil fuels allows countries like Russia to hold the global economy hostage, Biden said, and clean energy would not only prevent similar energy shocks in the future but would help the world avert climate disaster.

Correction, November 14, 10:40 am: An earlier version of this article misstated how the “fair share” of climate financing is determined and used. It is determined by researchers, and was not used to set goals for each country’s share of financing.

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