“This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol said on April 20, referring to the news that global greenhouse gas emissions are set to jump by 4.8 percent this year, the largest annual increase since 2010.
The U.S. is hosting 40 countries this week for an international climate summit, where new climate targets are likely to be announced by the White House, as well as from an array of other countries. But with greenhouse gases on the rise, the world remains badly off track in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, even as the disastrous effects of climate change become more evident with each passing year.
U.S. tries to restore climate mantle
The U.S. is hosting a two-day climate summit beginning on April 22, and the Biden administration is widely expected to announce a goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, from a 2005 baseline.
That would effectively double the Obama-era goal, although it remains weaker than some other countries. The UK, for example, will aim for a 78 percent reduction by 2035, and the baseline used is from 1990, a stricter reference point. “The reduction for the U.S. that could be considered fair isn’t necessarily the same as the average global reduction,” Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, told Bloomberg.
The pledge is relatively significant, and is aimed at restoring U.S. credibility in international climate negotiations.
Still, the pledge is relatively significant, and is aimed at restoring U.S. credibility in international climate negotiations. The Biden administration is also hoping to persuade and cajole other countries into ratcheting up their climate ambition, but the policy pendulum in Washington has governments around the world casting a skeptical eye.
“Our diplomats will challenge the practices of countries whose action – or inaction – is setting the world back,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said ahead of the summit.
Obviously, the most important country to watch is China, which is a global leader in renewable energy but is also far and away the largest consumer of coal on the planet. The U.S. and China issued a joint statement ahead of the climate summit, pledging to work together on climate change. At the same time, the Biden administration is framing climate action as a geopolitical imperative to confront China.
The mixed messages are likely not lost on Beijing, which, for its part, criticized the U.S.’ recent record. “The U.S. chose to come and go as it likes with regard to the Paris Agreement,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on April 16. “Its return is by no means a glorious comeback but rather the student playing truant getting back to class.”
Domestic climate policy needed
In order for the U.S. to have credibility, the proof needs to be in the pudding. That is, the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress need to take decisive action domestically aimed at accelerating emissions reductions in order to demonstrate its seriousness. Years ago, paper targets might have been enough to spark enthusiasm. But with the climate crisis worsening, talk is cheap.
The White House’s plan to do that rests on a couple of key pillars. The main legislative vehicle is President Biden’s proposed $2.25 trillion infrastructure package, which relies heavily on pouring lots of money into renewable energy and electric vehicles. Carbon prices and other fossil fuel-restrictive measures do not feature prominently in the proposal, and it instead relies on deploying clean energy and driving down costs. That makes the political task easier, but it raises questions about whether there will in fact be substantial emissions reductions.
On that front, the Biden administration may need to rely on regulatory action at the agencies. The EPA is formulating new fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, and new methane regulations on oil and gas wells, and new restrictions on air pollution from power plants. The Interior Department is beginning to shift federal lands in a cleaner direction. The Treasury Department and other financial regulators are stepping up oversight of lending to fossil fuel-based industries. There are dozens of other smaller actions at the executive agency level. Collectively, such actions could move the needle on emissions, but the rulemaking process is lengthy, so progress won’t occur overnight.
Nevertheless, the “whole-of-government” approach that Biden officials like to talk about is the basis for trying to get other countries on board.
It remains to be seen if governments, after seeing climate action unwind in past years, will be sold on the effort.
After the climate summit, the Biden administration will turn its attention to a concerted effort to push through its $2.25 trillion infrastructure package. On April 19, the head of the United Mine Workers of America, the largest coal miners’ union in the country, voiced some support for an energy transition, contingent upon major investments in traditional fossil fuel hubs to make them whole. For example, the union proposed plans for specific tax incentives for renewable energy jobs for dislocated miners and large-scale funding for plugging abandoned oil and gas wells.
The warming up to a clean energy transition from coal miners made headlines, and it provides a boost in support for the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure package while also defanging some of the opposition to climate action. But with global emissions on the rise, the clock is ticking.