President Joe Biden wrapped up his two-day virtual climate summit last week by acknowledging the key question of whether the United States and other countries will back up their bold environmental rhetoric with action.
“The commitments we've made must become real,” Biden said. “Commitment without us doing it — it's just a lot of hot air.”
The Biden administration will flesh out in the coming months sector-by-sector how it plans to meet its new target of reducing emissions by 50 percent to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. It also will continue selling those plans to the American public, Capitol Hill and the rest of the world.
Expect to hear climate mentioned in his joint address to Congress, just as it is written all over the administration’s budget outline and woven into its infrastructure plans.
The second day of the climate summit on Friday was dominated by talk of how addressing climate change can also boost economic activity and create jobs.
“No one is being asked for a sacrifice,” said U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. “This is an opportunity.”
Many Republicans, on the other hand, have argued that aggressively curtailing U.S. fossil fuel production will hurt an economy still emerging from the hit of the pandemic.
On the other side, many environmental advocates would like to see an even faster pace. Youth advocates in particular have been vocal about the need to raise ambitions higher.
Brendan Guy, lead strategist for international climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the summit sent an unequivocal signal that the highest levels of American leadership are now committed to ambitious climate action and the new U.S. target meets the needs of the moment.
But he noted that even administration officials have described it as a minimum level that the country could well exceed.
“From our point of view, and I know certainly others in the environmental community think that they do still need to go further in order to fully align with efforts to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Guy said. “So we’ll keep encouraging them to be more ambitious over the coming years, but certainly now the focus is on actually delivering that level of ambition in terms of almost doubling the Obama-era commitment.”
While congressional support for certain incentives and other measures would be helpful, Guy suggested congressional miracles aren’t necessary to achieve the U.S. target.
Rather, there are multiple pathways to reach the promised reductions, including through executive actions, market trends and regulations on the power and transportation sectors, he said.
Battling through time zone challenges and intermittent technical difficulties, leaders from around the world spent two days offering plans for reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to stave off worst-case climate scenarios.
Japan, for example, said it would increase its commitment to nearly 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030, while South Korea promised to stop its public financing of coal-fired power plants overseas. Even the world’s largest emitter, China, talked about curtailing coal usage.
Canada boosted its previous goal up to 40 percent to 45 percent reduction by 2030, which some advocates noted falls short of America’s new target. Given the high degree of integration between the U.S. and Canadian economies, it will be important to align those targets, they said, and could add fuel to the push for climate-related trade actions.
Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the most important takeaway from the summit was a complete reset by the Biden administration as it reengages with the rest of the world on climate. She said her group had urged the administration to set a goal of reducing emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030.
What was missing, she said, was financing to help poorer countries. Previous international climate agreements have envisioned $100 billion annually from the world’s richest countries to help poorer nations deal with climate, but the actual funding level has fallen short.
More specifically, the United States under President Barack Obama pledged to deliver $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but the Trump administration stopped payments after only a third was delivered.
Biden has proposed $1.2 billion to the fund in his fiscal 2022 budget request.
“It’s not enough. It’s not sufficient. It’s not even making up for the lost ground from what we didn’t deliver in the past,” Cleetus said of that level of funding. “And that money is urgently needed by developing countries to make their own low-carbon transition to deal with climate impacts that are already unfolding, and many of these countries, as was pointed out during the summit, are reeling from the COVID crisis.”
She said it’s early in the year and plenty of 2021 milestones remain ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
There’s the G-7 summit in June, the U.N. General Assembly in September and then a G-20 gathering on the eve of the climate talks.
Along the way nations will be fleshing out how they plan to achieve the promised reductions and potentially announcing new commitments.
Matthew Davis, League of Conservation Voters legislative director, said there is much to be done between now and Glasgow to capitalize on momentum from the summit.
The administration will work to encourage some lagging countries to boost their emission reductions while also seeking to deliver on the domestic front. That includes a proposed infrastructure package, as well as moves to electrify transit systems and promote renewable energy, he said.
“We need to shift our entire thinking and economy to reducing emissions,” Davis said.
Davis described the new U.S. emissions targets as ambitious but achievable and called for them to be accomplished in a way that incorporates environmental justice.
“We have so much of the technology we need already and we just need to deploy it,” he said. “And we need to deploy it in a way that distributes the benefits equitably.”