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America is Back: Biden’s Climate Summit Takes the Lead

Three questions to Pete Ogden

America is Back: Biden’s Climate Summit Takes the Lead
 Pete Ogden
Vice President for Energy, Climate, and the Environment at the United Nations Foundation

On April 22, President Joe Biden kicked off his Virtual Leaders Summit on climate by announcing that the United States will aim to cut carbon emissions by as much as 52% by 2030. With 40 world leaders present, the message sent by Biden is clear: the US is ready to restore its climate leadership on the world stage. We asked Pete Ogden, Vice President for Energy, Climate, and the Environment at the United Nations Foundation, to break down some of the key takeaways from the Summit. 

How can the United States work towards this very ambitious goal? Will he be able to generate the necessary political will?

President Joe Biden indeed announced an impressive new commitment by the United States to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, as its new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. This is one of the most ambitious reduction targets of any developed economy, putting the US in the good company of France, the EU, and the UK in this respect. Now the challenge shifts from goal-setting to goal-achieving. While emissions were down 13% in 2019 from the 2005 levels - and, due to the pandemic-induced economic slowdown, could sink as low as 21% in 2021 - the economic recovery will drive emissions back up unless the administration acts quickly and aggressively. 

Fortunately, climate has been a core priority for President Biden. He campaigned and won on the most ambitious climate agenda in US history. He pledged to, among other things, decarbonize US electricity production by 2035, invest trillions of dollars domestically in building a clean and sustainable economy, accelerate electric vehicle deployment, promote advanced manufacturing, and, perhaps, most ambitiously of all, achieve net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050 - a goal that France and the EU have set for themselves as well. He has since made climate change one of the four cross-cutting issues - along with Covid response, economic recovery, and racial justice - that serve as the foundational planks for his entire administration. 

There is no bigger or more critical near-term opportunity for President Biden to put the US onto a new greenhouse gas trajectory and deliver on his campaign promises than by winning passage of his American Jobs Plan. This infrastructure bill would invest hundreds of billions of dollars and put climate and clean energy at the heart of America’s economic growth for decades to come, with the potential to create millions of jobs across every sector of the economy and enable the United States to better withstand the increasingly severe impacts of climate change that it is already experiencing. 

This infrastructure bill would [...] put climate and clean energy at the heart of America’s economic growth for decades to come, with the potential to create millions of jobs.

Significantly, there has been growing support for climate action in the United States over the past four years outside of Washington, DC - at the state and city level, in the private sector, among the younger generation, and across political parties. President Biden has repeatedly expressed his hope that hyper-partisanship on climate (and others issues) will give way. This infrastructure legislation, which tightly interweaves his economic and climate agendas, will be a test of whether he is successful. But even without bipartisan support, the bill could still be passed - very narrowly - by Democrats alone in Congress. 

One of the aims of this summit was to demonstrate the American willingness to once again play a leadership role on an issue that had been sidelined in recent years ("America is back"). Was this attempt successful? What role might climate play in the US-EU relationship now going forward?

Yes, the Summit clearly demonstrated President Biden’s intention to restore America’s climate leadership on the world stage. He did this both by hosting the Summit during his first 100 days in office, despite the challenges of that timeline, and by ensuring that the summit convened leaders at the highest level -- with more than 40 world leaders, including those of every major economy, and other critical actors, all agreeing to participate.

But the success of the Summit hinged on President Biden’s announcement of what the United States would set as its emission reduction target for 2030 under the Paris Agreement. The Biden administration, in other areas of foreign policy, has emphasized that leadership abroad on key issues must begin with leadership at home. In this regard, President Biden’s announcement at the Summit that America would set a truly ambitious new emission reduction target for 2030 serves as a powerful linchpin between his domestic and international climate goals, and makes ongoing global leadership possible beyond the Summit. 

Moreover, the Summit, with its chief focus on the need for major economies to elevate their ambitions, showed the United States using its diplomatic muscle to row in the same direction as climate leaders such as the EU have been for the past few years, rather than aiming to tack in a new direction. In this way, the United States’ reemergence was fundamentally about rejoining the efforts of others. This was evidenced by the intensive diplomacy the US undertook prior to the summit, with major economies who still had insufficient 2030 targets under the Paris Agreement. Leveraging its own impending new 2030 target, the United States helped to encourage new targets from Japan (a 44% to 50% cut below 2005 levels by 2030), Canada (a 40-45% cut below 2005 levels by 2030), and Korea (a commitment to enhance its target this year and to end coal finance abroad).

The potential for transatlantic cooperation going forward is not only high, but essential. The vision President Biden outlined for his global security, economic, and climate agenda all have powerful and intertwined transatlantic anchors. In this respect, President Biden’s Climate Leaders Summit was the starter’s pistol of a diplomatic race over the next six and half months, that travels from the UK hosting the G7 summit in June, to Italy hosting the G20 summit in October, to the UK and Italy co-hosting the COP26 in Glasgow in November.

Building this strong partnership can and must be a top priority, one that will require working in close collaboration from the outset, and ensuring that potentially problematic issues get the high-level attention political attention they deserve.

The potential for transatlantic cooperation [...] is not only high, but essential.

How can the US encourage the largest emitters to follow their lead, China in particular, as the largest emitter, given the overall tension in the US-China relationship?

In spite of the many tensions in the bilateral relationship, the US and China were able to successfully negotiate a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to addressing the climate crisis in the days preceding the Climate Leaders Summit. Moreover, President Xi personally participated in the Summit itself. At the same time, given the broader challenges in the relationship, it was no surprise that China did not come to President Biden’s Summit with a major announcement that might have given the appearance it was made under pressure from the United States. That said, the United States did the single thing in its own power that will put the most pressure on China to take more aggressive climate action: it established an ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target that moved the United States from laggard to leader in the space of less than 100 days. 

Significantly, the US also began to roll out its broader climate finance plan, including a pledge to ramp up its public funding and mobilize additional private sector investment using its development finance institution and other tools. This will be critical to helping enable other developing countries to accelerate their own transitions. But this is happening in the context of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is financing enormous amounts of dirty infrastructure around the world and, to an alarming extent, is locking in the status quo. While China has spoken of "greening" its overseas finance, progress has been slow. The United States will need to work swiftly with developed country partners to create and implement a strategy that will mobilize clean finance opportunities that are more attractive to developing countries than the dirty alternatives. This, in turn, will encourage China’s own shifts in this direction. 


Copyright: POOL / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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