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Biden spells out U.S. climate goal, urges other world leaders to go big

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/22/2021 Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin, Steven Mufson
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In one of the most surreal summit meetings ever, President Biden on Thursday hosted more than 40 world leaders in a bid to restore the United States’ damaged diplomatic reputation and to rally nations around the globe to make deeper cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

With Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and special presidential envoy for climate John F. Kerry seated around a horseshoe-shaped table in the East Room of the White House, the faces of presidents and prime ministers flashed by on a large screen, one by one putting forth their own limited plans for meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Biden kicked off the meeting promising to cut U.S. emissions to half of their 2005 levels by the end of the decade. Several other world leaders also pledged to speed up cuts to their own emissions, restore forests, phase out coal plants, and put people to work building wind turbines and solar panels. And many leaders beseeched the world to act more urgently — and find more money — to help nations already grappling with existential threats from rising seas and other impacts.

This was climate diplomacy in the pandemic age — technical glitches and all — as Biden virtually convened more than three dozen heads of state for an Earth Day summit intended to reassert U.S. leadership on international climate action and galvanize worldwide momentum ahead of a critical United Nations gathering in Scotland this fall.

a person sitting at a table: French President Emmanuel Macron listens to President Biden from Paris during the virtual climate summit on Thursday. © Ian Langsdon/AFP/Getty Images French President Emmanuel Macron listens to President Biden from Paris during the virtual climate summit on Thursday.

“This is a moral imperative, an economic imperative. A moment of peril, but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities,” President Biden said at the start. “Time is short, but I believe we can do this. And I believe that we will do this.”

The event, while global in scope, also was aimed at shining a spotlight on Biden’s renewed push at home to transform the U.S. economy, moving it away from fossil fuels and setting in motion far-reaching changes that would affect everything from how Americans power their homes to what cars they drive.

Three months after officially rejoining the Paris climate accord, the White House on Thursday unveiled a new pledge to reduce U.S. emissions between 50 and 52 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels — significantly more aggressive than the target set by President Barack Obama six years ago.

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Biden also promised by 2024 to double the amount of annual financing that Obama had made available for climate-related projects in developing countries. He faces an uphill battle in delivering on some of these climate promises, given that they will need congressional support.

Throughout the morning, other world leaders announced their own new promises.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to reduce his county’s emissions by 40 to 45 percent by the end of the decade, compared with 2005 levels. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said his country would aim to cut greenhouse gases at least 46 percent by 2030, more than double its previous target. South Korea president Moon Jae-in committed to ending public financing for overseas coal power plants and said the nation “hopes” to ramp up its overall emissions-cutting goals this year.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the country’s greenhouse gas emissions would peak in 2025, 10 years earlier than previously targeted. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promised to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030, even though the problem has grown more dire since he took office.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, touted the nation’s decision to reduce its emissions by 78 percent by 2035, compared with 1990 levels. Like Biden and other leaders, he spoke of tackling climate change not just as an environmental necessity but as an unprecedented economic opportunity.

Tracking Biden’s environmental actions

“It’s vital for all of us to show that this is not all about some expensive, politically correct agreement of bunny hugging,” Johnson said. “This is about growth and jobs.”

Some experts criticized Canada’s and Japan’s pledges as insufficient, however, and other high-profile leaders steered clear of making major new commitments.

China’s Xi Jinping, the first national leader to speak at Thursday’s summit, reiterated the nation’s pledge to “strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” On coal consumption, Xi said China might “phase it down” during its 15th Five Year Plan, which runs from 2025 through 2030. The Chinese leader also said his country, which is responsible for nearly a third of the world’s emissions, would strictly control coal power projects in the years ahead.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised only tosignificantly” reduce emissions by 2050 and noted that his country takes seriously its international commitments. He mentioned both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris accord — climate agreements that the United States once walked away from.

Still, most countries on Thursday wholeheartedly welcomed the U.S.'s return to the world stage, saying American leadership is critical to reach the collective goal of limiting Earth’s warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels, and if possible to stay closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Failure to hit those targets, scientists have warned, will result in a cascade of costly and devastating effects.

“It is so good to have the U.S. back on our side in the fight against climate change,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Despite the Biden administration’s renewed push to slow the Earth’s warming and the flickers of climate ambition that emerged Thursday from other nations, the world so far remains nowhere near meeting the aspirations it set for itself in Paris six years ago.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warned leaders at the White House summit that the world is “racing toward the threshold of catastrophe” unless it moves more rapidly. He noted that the past decade was the hottest on record, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have reached disturbing levels, and scorching temperatures and epic wildfires are growing more intense.

“We are at the verge of the abyss,” he said. “We must make sure the next step is in the right direction.”

United Nations: Countries’ pledges to cut emissions are far too meager to halt climate change

“So far, only 18 to 24 percent of pandemic recovery spending is expected to contribute to mitigating emissions, reducing air pollution or strengthening natural capital,” Guterres said. “We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden [the next generation] with a mountain of debt on a broken planet.”

The U.S. climate pledge is less ambitious than Britain’s or the European Union’s, which has committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent compared with 1990 levels by the end of the decade, as well as Britain’s. Using 1990 as a baseline, the U.S. would cut its emissions by between 41 and 44 percent by 2030.

Even as the White House said the new U.S. commitment is consistent with the goal of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), an independent analysis by the nonprofit Climate Action Tracker suggests it still falls short of that lofty goal.

The United States would have to cut its carbon output by at least 57 percent to avert that level of warming and meet Biden’s own 2050 climate target, the scientists projected. Biden has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

Several analyses suggest that the new U.S. commitment, which would rely in part on significant new funding from Congress and federal policies to rein in emissions from power plants and the nation’s auto fleet, would require a profound reshaping of the American economy.

The University of Maryland’s Global Center for Sustainability published a working paper in February examining what changes would transpire if the nation cut emissions 51 percent by 2030. At that point, the researchers projected, renewable power would account for roughly half of the nation’s electricity — quadruple current levels. Almost no coal plants would be operating unless they captured their carbon pollution.

Advances in transportation would account for a quarter of emissions reductions between now and 2030, they estimated, so that more than 65 percent of new cars and SUV sales and 10 percent of new truck sales will be electric. All new buildings would be fully electric, they wrote, and almost all new appliances would run on electricity rather than natural gas.

“For this U.S. economy, this is a fundamental and thorough transformation,” University of Maryland Professor Nathan Hultman, who directs the center and was the report’s lead author, said in an interview.

While Biden’s climate summit was intended to help persuade other nations to embrace the bigger, bolder goals envisioned under the Paris accord, whether that succeeds or fails will become clearer only over time. A moment of truth will come this November in Glasgow, where nations are expected to arrive with detailed new blueprints for how they intend to do their part.

This week, though, part of the answer seemed to rely on big corporations, which world political leaders tried to rally to the climate cause. Biden announced Thursday that he would launch an international climate finance plan to help underwrite the transition to a decarbonized global economy “in a coordinated way.”

He said that money must flow toward finding breakthrough technologies and helping the world’s most vulnerable countries, many of which have also been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that while she shared Biden’s goals, “past efforts to support private investment have not achieved anywhere near the scale needed to green the global economy.”

International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva was among the officials who made a strong pitch for an international carbon price, starting with a common price among the Group of 20 largest economies. Georgieva said that the price should increase to $75 a ton by 2030.

“Without it, we will not meet our carbon goals,” she said.

For now, Biden already faces competing pressures from critics who say he is taking the country down a disastrous path, as well as allies who say he still isn’t moving aggressively enough.

“President Biden is unilaterally committing America to a drastic and damaging emissions pledge,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said in a statement. “As the president sets punishing targets for the country, America’s adversaries like China and Russia continue to increase emissions at will. The last thing the economy needs is higher energy prices and fewer jobs, but that’s exactly what we’re going to get."

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who repeatedly sued the Obama administration over its climate policies, called Biden’s pledge “a domestic and foreign policy blunder of almost unfathomable proportions.”

“It would necessarily take over nearly every aspect of American life — requiring drastic changes for homes, businesses and factories — while crippling our country’s ability to compete on the world stage,” Morrisey said in a statement.

To some climate activists, the U.S. pledge unveiled Thursday and the new measures announced by other countries represent merely a down payment on what must be more transformative action to come.

“You need to accept the era of fossil fuels is over,” 18-year-old Xiye Bastida, a New York-based organizer with the youth climate group Fridays for Future, said at the White House summit. “You will often tell us again and again that we are being unrealistic and unreasonable,” she added. “But who is being unrealistic and unreasonable with non-ambitious, non-bold solutions?”

Bastida called on leaders to drastically scale back emissions, while also addressing the persistent inequality between wealthy nations and those suffering the worst effects of climate change: island nations, Arctic communities, and people in Africa and the Amazon.

On Capitol Hill, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered a similar message .

"How long do you think you can continue to ignore the climate crisis?” she asked in her opening statement before a virtual House Oversight subcommittee hearing, in which she called government fossil fuel subsidies a “disgrace.”

"You still have time to do the right thing and to save your legacies, but that window of time is not going to last for long,” she continued. “So my advice for you is to choose wisely.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of the U.S. secretary of state. He is Antony, not Anthony, Blinken. The story has been corrected.

John Wagner, Adam Taylor, Colby Itkowitz, Sarah Kaplan and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

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