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US stages climate comeback after Trump but fails to elicit specific targets from largest polluters

Louise Boyle
·8-min read
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry listen during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House on Earth Day, April 22 (AP)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry listen during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House on Earth Day, April 22 (AP)

After four years in the wilderness, the US administration staged a global comeback on Earth Day in the battle to stop a runaway climate crisis, convening dozens of world leaders at a virtual summit.

The president, Joe Biden, and vice president, Kamala Harris, opened the two-day event from the White House at 8am local time, a consideration for the array of time zones of fellow leaders beaming in from around the world.

They were joined by the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and international climate envoy John Kerry in the East Room, where a set had been constructed, giving off morning show vibes with its half-moon table, large screens and potted plants.

In his address, Mr Biden said that the world was at “a moment of peril but a moment of opportunity” and that this was the “decisive decade” in which to act.

“The science is undeniable. The cost of inaction keeps mounting,” he said.

Scientists warn that to avoid greater climate catastrophe, average global temperature needs to remain well below 2 degrees Celsius (C), with an aim of an increasingly ambitious 1.5C goal. The planet is currently on track for more than 3C of global heating by end of the century.

“The world beyond 1.5 degrees means more frequent and intense fires, floods, droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes tearing through communities, ripping away lives and livelihoods, increasingly dire impacts to our public health,” Mr Biden added.

Some 40 world leaders were invited to the event, held online due to Covid-19. All attended, a hopeful sign that other fraught geopolitical issues could be put to one side in order to address the collective emergency. The milestone talks are aimed at driving ambition ahead of the United Nations climate summit, Cop26, in Glasgow this November.

The guest list included the US’s fellow largest greenhouse gas emitters – China, India and Russia – and leaders of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which total about 80 per cent of global emissions. Invites also went to nations on the frontlines of the climate crisis, some who are already facing existential threats to their very existence.

As has become common at these events, there were occasional technical glitches. Both the president and vice president’s remarks had an echo and there were random dial tone beeps. During opening remarks, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, was cut off when the camera unexpectedly cut to an unprepared Vladimir Putin.

Some appeared to embrace the relative informality of an international Zoom hangout.

“This is not bunny-hugging,” British PM Boris Johnson said of climate efforts, adding it was about “jobs and growth”.

Holding the multilateral event virtually also prevented leaders, and the large delegations that typically accompany them, from engaging in sideline negotiations and informal chats.

Gaston Alfonso Browne, prime minister of the Caribbean islands nation of Antigua and Barbuda, said that his people are “teetering on the edge of despair”. The communities have faced a devastating march of increasingly powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recent years.

“We are the least contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but the most affected by climate change,” he said, calling for debt relief and more international assistance to prevent a flow of climate refugees.

While each country’s leader spoke about the need to address the climate crisis, the individual commitments varied widely.

President Xi Jinping of China, the world’s largest carbon polluter, was the first global leader to speak after Mr Biden.

He said that China would work alongside the US but made no new pledge, reiterating his announcement from last year that the superpower aims to reach peak emissions by 2030. He added that country would “strictly control” coal projects, and limit increases of the fossil fuel over the next five years.

Nor did India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, make any new commitment. He spoke of India’s growing renewable energy projects and urged the world to take up sustainable lifestyles.

President Vladimir Putin pledged international cooperation on emissions. He said that he had ordered his administration to “significantly cut the accumulated volume of net emissions” by 2050 in Russia but refrained from giving a specific target.

“Russia is genuinely interested in galvanising international cooperation so as to look further for effective solutions to climate change as well as to all other vital challenges,” he concluded.

Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro pointed the finger at developed nations for “burning fossil fuels in the course of the past two centuries” but offered a somewhat conciliatory tone on protecting the Amazon, a crucial carbon sink. He said that he would eliminate illegal deforestation in Brazil by 2030 but that his country requires outside financing to protect the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Others appeared keen to bolster America’s renewed enthusiasm for tackling the crisis. President Biden announced on Thursday a new US target to achieve up to a 52 per cent reduction from 2005 levels of greenhouse gas pollution in 2030. He has promised to set the country on a path to net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

The target is non-binding but nevertheless symbolically important, and gives the US a renewed position of credibility from which to press other nations to increase their goals.

Yoshihide Suga, prime minister of coal-heavy Japan, announced a new emissions reduction target of at least 46 per cent, below 2013 levels, by 2030.

US neighbour Canada also brought along an update, with PM Justin Trudeau saying the country would slash emissions 40 to 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The UK announced earlier this week that it will slash emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, from 1990 levels. The European Union also passed legislation to cut emissions by 55 per cent.

The Biden administration says that these pledges, along with the new US goal, means half the global economy has committed to reducing emissions.

The US goal will require an overhaul of how America runs: sweeping changes to the power sector and transportation; rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind and solar; and capping abandoned oil and gas rigs and coal mines.

More specific plans on hitting the target remain to be seen but Mr Biden’s recently introduced $2 trillion infrastructure bill, the American Jobs Plan, has put transition to a clean energy economy at its core.

The Biden administration says that these pledges, along with the new US goal, means half the global economy has committed to reducing emissions.

The new US target is the first update on emissions cuts, the so-called “Nationally Determined Contribution” that is required under the Paris Agreement, since President Obama signed the deal in 2015.

President Trump, a climate change denier whose administration cozied up to the oil and gas industry, exited the Paris Agreement, and reversed environmental protections and measures to combat global heating.

Some world leaders made subtle digs at the right-wing former president in remarks on Thursday.

“I’m delighted to see that the United States is back, is back to work together with us in climate politics,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared. “Because there can be no doubt about the world needing your contribution if we really want to fulfil our ambitious goals.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also said that it was “so good to have the US back on our side in the fight against climate change”.

At a press briefing later in the day, Mr Kerry denounced Mr Trump for withdrawing from the Paris deal, saying it was done “regrettably, without any facts, without any science, without any rationale that would be considered reasonable”.

He also offered a response to countries who doubt the US’s intentions to commit to tackling the climate crisis for the long-haul. He said that “no politician could change what is now happening globally in the marketplace”, highlighting the financial commitments toward the White House’s goal.

The summit elicited a mixed response from climate activists and environmental organisations.

The Sierra Club, America’s oldest environmental organisation, applauded the new US emissions pledge. International climate and policy campaign director, Cherelle Blazer, said it met “the urgency of the moment”.

“We only have until 2030 before our climate budget is spent and federally, the US wasted the last four years under Trump. We now have a historic opportunity to undertake transformational change at the scale needed while fostering cleaner air and water, higher wages, greater equity, healthier communities, and a more stable climate,” she said.

Others were less celebratory. Greta Thunberg called the US’s climate policy “a disgrace” in her appearance before Congress on Thursday.

“All I can do is to urge you to listen to and act on the science, and to use your common sense,” Ms Thunberg said in a virtual speech to the House Oversight Committee. The teenage activist blasted the government for continuing to subsidise fossil fuels.

“It is the year 2021. The fact that we are still having this discussion, and even more, that we are still subsidising fossil fuels directly or indirectly using taxpayer money, is a disgrace,” she said.

Republicans were also less than happy with raising the stakes on climate. US Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell tweeted: “This administration’s zeal for costly climate policy at home is not matched by our biggest competitors. China’s share of emissions is nearly double ours. The Paris Agreement is largely toothless. Democrats can kill US jobs and industries with no real impact on global emissions.”

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