After Washington’s disengagement during the Trump presidency, US President Joe Biden tried to shape world leaders toward stronger climate-goal commitments.
Climate advocates are eagerly anticipating Thursday’s kick-off of U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual Earth Day Summit, hoping that a more planet-friendly administration could represent a giant leap forward in U.S. leadership on what many see as the defining problem of our time.
The US is expected to announce an ambitious new target to reduce carbon emissions by 2030 during the two-day confab involving some 40 nations. Also expected to keep twisting Brazil’s arm to crack down on deforestation in the Amazon region. And bilateral discussions—if successful—could force Japan, China, South Korea, or Canada to announce new aspirations to reach climate targets aligned with the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Since Biden took office three months ago, the climate policy landscape has changed dramatically, with the new president raising hopes that the US will help guide other nations towards a low-carbon future.
Activists see this week’s summit as a major opportunity for revitalising climate change ahead of the COP26 meeting scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in November – a pending meeting that could be illuminated when UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses Biden’s summit.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in many parts of the world and nations still struggling to heal their economies, Earth’s carbon dioxide levels are rising ever higher.
The Earth Day Summit marks a sharp departure from former President Donald Trump’s previous administration, which pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement and blasted its climate-goal promises as antithetical to its “America First” policy.
But that view is rapidly disappearing as US activists and a rising chorus of American business leaders force Washington to step up with serious, concerted action to tackle global warming.
Rachel Cleetus, Environment and Energy Policy Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she expects Biden to wave with a bold new nationally determined contribution to stop global warming.
Last week, her organisation sent a letter to the president urging him to commit to a 50 percent reduction in US emissions below 2005 levels over the next decade – a benchmark that would still put Washington far behind London and Brussels.
“After four years on the sidelines, the US has plenty of ground to make up, and it’s a welcome change to have a science-led government,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The nation and world need the US to fulfil its obligations,” Cleetus said. “Leading by example, not rhetoric, is what’s required.”
Biden’s administration has made great strides with climate measures so far, Cleetus said, returning to the Paris Agreement and issuing sweeping environmental executive orders.
But the current government doesn’t go far enough, she says.
Biden’s original $1.2bn budget plan for the Green Climate Fund in this “falls well short” budget period, Cleetus believes. She wants the US to commit at least $8bn over the next four years to climate finance – funds “desperately needed by developing countries,” she said, to help them advance sustainable development goals while making the transition to a low-carbon economy.
In India, for example, this climate challenge is a domestic struggle to resist the demand from wealthier nations to curb pollution that would hamper local economic development.
But many in India argue that this narrative is short-sighted, arguing that accelerating the technological change is actually better long-term for Indian productivity and resilience—and that this should be India’s driving force.
For China, there is broad support for President Xi Jinping’s climate target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2060, through the Communist Party apparatus. The US and China have agreed to cooperate on environment, but with Xi waiting until the last minute to commit to attending Biden’s summit, the jury is out how far that cooperation will go.
Last week, US climate czar John Kerry’s trip to China helped bring the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters back on the same page, amid a wide range of other flashpoints in their strained relationship.
China, for its part, is eager to exploit opportunities to sell its green technology to other countries, while Biden’s administration should demonstrate its willingness to collaborate with China on this main issue at least.
China faces a formidable challenge in shutting down some 600 coal-fired power plants over the next decade, which is what the analytical company TransitionZero said Beijing needs to do to reach its goals. Then there is the environmental issue posed by energy-intensive bitcoin mining, 75% of which is in China.
“To solve the climate crisis, the world must transition away from coal as quickly as possible, requiring the participation of all nations,” said Bloomberg Philanthropies Head of International Climate and Environment Initiatives, Ailun Yang.
She told Al Jazeera that Biden has the benefit of resuming US leadership that has been partly abrogated for the last four years.
“It’s important to note that the US drove home pollution reduction progress and inspired optimism abroad even without a White House climate champion, thanks to the impressive work of cities, states, businesses and other non-federal leaders,” Yang said. “Their efforts paved the way for the US to tap the international climate war smoothly.”
With a slew of technical details to work out, some observers are skeptical that Kerry’s round-the-world trip from Bangladesh to the United Arab Emirates in April will result in this week’s new commitments.So the summit may be a US celebration, being more in space than a platform where big leaps really take place.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program Director, said President Biden could face the challenge and resolve a confidence deficit by relying on policy bona fides.
“The Biden administration comes with heavy hitters who know the people they’ll encounter,” Fitzpatrick told Al Jazeera. “We know the mechanism and how the talks work.”
“Having a good experience roster and experienced experts is very beneficial. There’s no learning curve, “he said. “Many individuals have name recognition, and their involvement on behalf of the U.S. government has a lot of weight.”
Fitzpatrick also argues that the US, amid the hangover from an “America First” presidency, can be a climate friend and ally.
“Everyone knows Americans want to fight and win, but we should be partners to get our share of the pie,” he said.
Pointing to emerging technologies such as renewable hydrogen, carbon capture and advanced nuclear power, Fitzpatrick said the same products that will prosper in domestic markets will also be critical for other exports.
Biden’s flagship $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan — announced last month in Pittsburgh and still ongoing work — includes huge spending on environmental targets that could raise US market share in green technology while also reducing US emissions.
“Joe Biden pitched the American Jobs Plan, using the term ‘climate’ in Pittsburgh just once,” Fitzpatrick said. “But this is America’s most game-changing legislative plan on climate change.”
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