President Joe Biden’s new climate commitment leaves some wondering whether the U.S. will stick to the plan this time.
The U.S. government finds itself in an unfamiliar position midway through President Joe Biden’s global climate summit: struggling to deploy the moral authority and financial heft needed to assume global leadership.
Washington's history of backing out or failing to ratify climate commitments now jeopardizes widespread support for Biden’s just-announced plans to cut U.S. carbon dioxide output between 50 and 52 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels.
Surface-level positive feelings from foreign leaders toward Biden belies fundamental tensions around how both the U.S. and its allies and competitors can achieve such cuts, and who should pay. The Chinese government — which last week agreed to work with Biden to get climate change under control — has been particularly scathing. “The U.S. chose to come and go as it likes with regard to the Paris Agreement,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, implying that America may be offered forgiveness for its Paris Agreement backflips, but it cannot also expect applause for setting a 2030 target.
2030 is the new 2050
Biden is a victim of his own success. The 2020 global climate debate centered on agreement from governments to long-term goals of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 or 2060, but after Biden committed the U.S. to that trajectory in his first week in office, and sent John Kerry criss-crossing the globe to sell his vision, the world's greenest governments also got to work. They seized the chance to push for tougher emissions targets, and now 83 countries have updated their Paris Climate Agreement commitments to include a 2030 target. “2030 is the new 2050” said French President Emmanuel Macron.
Biden's difficulty is that foreign leaders are keenly aware he almost certainly cannot achieve his desired emission cuts solely through executive action. They now want to see Congress make Biden’s new target legally binding. Such an approach would be in line with legally binding targets set by the European Union, United Kingdom and Canada.
Global skepticism of U.S. climate commitments has roots extending back to the U.S. Senate’s refusal to approve the 1997 Kyoto Protocol signed by then-President Bill Clinton — the first major global climate agreement. President George W. Bush then walked away from the agreement within weeks of assuming office, setting the U.S. on a distinct path from Europe and other major economies in dealing with climate change.
While the Obama administration was a critical architect of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, former President Barack Obama did not submit the Agreement to Congress for ratification as a treaty — anticipating the Republican controlled Congress would reject it. That made it easier for former President Donald Trump, like Bush, to walk away.
Since then, most other national governments have moved forward with investments in reducing carbon emissions. Altogether, 46 countries have now put a price on carbon, including most members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, to which the U.S. belongs.
How do the major commitments compare?
There's a fundamental problem: governments do not use consistent benchmarks for measuring their climate action.
The disagreements start with which year to use as a baseline for measuring carbon emission reductions. The options include 1990, 2005, 2010, or even 2013 in the case of Japan.
According to calculations by Rhodium Group, a consulting firm, the U.K.’s promise of a 68 percent cut by 2030 compared to 1990 levels shrinks to a 63 percent cut when compared against 2005 emissions — the benchmark the Biden administration has chosen. The EU’s 55 percent cut likewise becomes a 51 percent cut — identical to the new U.S. commitment.
Flip the coin and the U.S. commitment of a 50 to 52 percent cut by 2030 becomes a mere 41 percent cut, if measured against 1990 levels.
Until now, the main focus of global climate debates is cutting future carbon emissions. Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out two problems with that approach: it underplays the role of methane in climate change (it’s far more harmful than carbon dioxide) and doesn’t help us deal with emissions already in the atmosphere, some of which must either be absorbed by forests or captured and stored by new technologies to avoid a climate change tipping point.
Developing countries including India, Brazil and South Africa see a third problem: today’s advanced economies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of carbon already in the atmosphere. They are not swayed by Biden’s claim that “America represents less than 15 percent of global emissions.” In their view, the U.S. is responsible for about one quarter of emissions over the past 200 years, and must help foot the global bill for change.
“We have no choice”
Biden framed the climate challenge in moral and economic terms on Thursday — but for many leaders, the issue is as politically fraught at home as it is in Washington.
Biden suggested the world has no choice but to act, but dozens of other countries do see a choice: and more often than not, foreign governments have chosen not to follow scientific advice.
Fundamental tensions include:
— Whether to price carbon: Australia junked its carbon tax in 2014 and refuses to reconsider the matter, while the U.S. has no federal plan to set a carbon price. In direct contrast, European Council President Charles Michel said that “a global approach to carbon pricing is paramount,” in moving to greener business models. French President Emmanuel Macron went even further: “If we don’t set a price for carbon, there will be no transition,” he said.
— Approaches to coal use: While South Korea committed Thursday to ending support for coal projects, Chinese President Xi Jinping admitted that during China’s current five-year plan, which ends in 2025, coal output will continue to increase.
— Fear of competitive disadvantage: Worried about their committing to deep cuts only to watch the U.S. or China fail to deliver equivalent change, leaders from the EU to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are developing defense mechanisms. For the EU, it's a "carbon border adjustment tax", and for Morrison, it's a focus on technology partnerships — where countries collaborate to innovate — rather than tougher emissions targets. Morrison has good reason to worry: climate policy disputes have sunk the careers of three Australian prime ministers in the past 11 years.
— Back to basics: Market economies are predicated on achieving economic growth, but leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reject those assumptions. “India’s per capita carbon footprint is 60 percent lower than the global average,” Modi said, urging the world to adopt a “back to basics” lifestyle directly at odds with America’s operating model.
— Funding a “just transition”: Developing countries, which dominate the list of 195 Paris Climate Agreement signatories, have rallied around a cry for greater equity. They say that the historical role of rich countries in causing today’s climate change obliges them to help fund efforts to cope with it.
Climate finance an easy win
One of the simplest ways for the Biden administration to lock in goodwill from foreign governments — without having to get a climate target passed through Congress — is to help fund small and poor countries to fortify themselves against the effects of climate change. “The debt of small states has risen to unsustainable levels, because of repeated borrowings to rebuild and recover from natural disasters, arising from climate change,” said Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda, representing the Small Island Developing States alliance.
Biden on Thursday launched a U.S. International Climate Finance Plan that was light on financial details. He promised to “double, by 2024, our annual public climate finance to developing countries relative to the average level during the second half of the Obama-Biden Administration."
Non-profits working on the issue told POLITICO they're not sure what that means in dollar terms, but work appears to be underway. The Rockefeller Foundation said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to scale up access to reliable, renewable-powered electricity.
Under the Paris Agreement, wealthy countries promised $100 billion a year to help poorer countries grow cleanly, but are far behind in delivering this support. The U.S. is $2 billion in arrears on a $3 billion Obama-era commitment to the global climate fund.
Browne summed up the mood after the summit's livestream ended: he thanked Biden for convening the meeting but added, "it is still not yet enough to give our islands a fighting chance.”
Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories https://www.politico.com/news/2021/04/23/biden-climate-plan-global-leaders-484322