Hiding behind the coattails of Big Oil is no longer the stance of the US. Instead, President Joe Biden told 40 world leaders that the US would halve its global warming emissions by the end of the decade. “This is a moral imperative, an economic imperative,” Biden exclaimed. “A moment of peril, but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities.”
The announcement came at the start of a 2-day Leaders Summit on Climate which commemorated the US return to the Paris climate agreement. Referring to America’s new carbon-cutting pledge, President Biden added: “The signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable, and the cost of inaction keeps mounting.”
Bloomberg calls Biden’s decision to up the climate ante “a clear demonstration that climate is at the center of his agenda. That he did so in front of presidents, prime ministers, and a king shows the White House has the influence to draw world leaders together.”
Biden’s influence was immediately evident, as Japan, Canada, Britain, and the European Union also committed to steeper cuts. The assurance places the US nearly equal to the EU but still distantly behind Britain. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the new US goal “game changing.”
The commitment to cut US greenhouse gases 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade will be extraordinarily difficult to meet — economically and politically, says the New York Times. The US climate goal marks a milestone in Biden’s broader plan to decarbonize the national economy entirely by 2050 — an agenda he says can create millions of good-paying jobs. “That’s where we’re headed as a nation, and that’s what we can do if we take action to build an economy that’s not only more prosperous but healthier, fairer, and cleaner for the entire planet,” Biden said. The US is accountable for about 15% of global emissions, which has been reiterated by US Climate Envoy John Kerry and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The American Petroleum Institute, the top US oil and gas lobbying group, cautiously welcomed Biden’s pledge but said it must come with policies including a price on carbon, which is a tough sell among many lawmakers.
Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general of West Virginia, called it a “radical” plan and a “domestic and foreign policy blunder of almost unfathomable proportions,” apparently still seeing his role as a representative for the declining coal industry.
If You Build It, Will Reluctant Countries Come?
China, India, and Russia made no new emissions promises at the Summit, and that has led to overt frustration for both US Democrats and Republicans.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said China has “shamelessly” kept emitting more: “Their share of greenhouse gas emissions are (sic) now nearly double that of the United States.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping participated in the Summit and underscored the role of developing countries in sustainable development. Xi said China will start cutting its consumption of coal from 2026. One possible way of driving that shift would be to make power plants pay a steeper price for emitting greenhouse gases. China, already a leader in electric vehicles, launched its national Emissions Trading System in February, and the first trades are expected to take place mid-year. Citigroup Inc. estimates $800 million worth of credits will be paid for this year, rising to $25 billion by the end of the decade. Such levels would make it about a third the size of Europe’s market, currently the biggest in the world.
While China’s pledges were disappointing, US global leadership on climate included a response to assist developing countries to address climate change with an estimated $5.7 billion by 2024. “All of us, and particularly those of us that represent the world’s largest economies — we have to step up,” Biden affirmed.
Avril Haines, Biden’s director of national intelligence, told world leaders that climate change was no longer a peripheral issue but now “at the center” of US foreign policy, with far-reaching impacts on force deployments and the stability of hard-hit regions.
The new emissions target and the Summit in general were positively received by environmental groups, who acknowledged that these are aggressive goals but affirmed that they should be achievable. Of particular interest was the release of the US International Climate Finance Plan. The plan provides new signals of how the US intends to drive forward efforts to “end international official financing for carbon-intensive fossil fuel based energy.” Its major sections include:
- Scaling-Up International Climate Finance and Enhancing its Impact
- Mobilizing Private Finance Internationally
- Ending International Official Financing for Carbon-Intensive Fossil Fuel Based Energy
- Making Capital Flows Consistent with Low-Emissions, Climate-Resilient Pathways
- Defining, Measuring, and Reporting US International Climate Finance
Day 2: A Gestalt of Nations for a New Generation
The second day of the White House virtual summit on climate change focused on how the US and other nations can meet their emissions-cutting targets and ramp up renewable energy. Jennifer Granholm, the energy secretary, described the US goal of cutting emissions at least in half by the end of the decade as “our generation’s moonshot” and said the administration aimed to cut solar and battery cell prices in half while reducing the cost of hydrogen energy by 80%.
The real test for the US will be to leverage its enormous global power to steer the rest of the world toward cleaner energy quickly enough to slow down catastrophic climate change. As a start, Biden announced on Friday that the US would revive its participation in Mission Innovation, which was begun by former President Barack Obama and Microsoft’s Bill Gates to support participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change. The reimagined initiative will gather dozens of nations and investors to increase government budgets for renewable energy research, development, and deployment.
Biden said the challenges and opportunities of reducing planet-warming emissions would be met by “working people” in all countries. “As we transition to a clean energy future,” he explained, “we must ensure workers who have thrived in yesterday’s and today’s industries have as bright a tomorrow in the new industries as well as in the places where they live.”
What Will It Take for the US to Reach these US Emissions Climate Goals?
The Biden-Harris administration’s decision to take climate action seriously is a key national milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow. The administration’s sector-specific goals will be outlined later this year. Then again, the following cleantech and renewable energy threads seem logical.
- Legislation to translate the $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes the money and the policies to draw down carbon pollution.
- Financial regulations designed to curb Wall Street investment in heavily polluting industries.
- Goodbye to coal for electricity and hello to wind turbines and solar arrays.
- Rules limiting fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
- New fuel economy standards for vehicles.
- The era of the electric vehicle is upon us. Internal combustion engines? Yesteryear memories.