As Nations Gather for Biden’s Virtual Climate Summit, Ambitious Pledges That Still Fall Short of Paris Goal

Leaders call for urgent action and stress the need for cooperation. But how countries will meet their targets remains unclear.

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President Joe Biden delivers remarks as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former Secretary of State John Kerry listens during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate with 40 world leaders at the East Room of the White House April 22, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images
President Joe Biden delivers remarks as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former Secretary of State John Kerry listens during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate with 40 world leaders at the East Room of the White House April 22, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

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WASHINGTON—Within this decade, the United States will cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half, China will begin phasing down its coal consumption, and Brazil will end illegal deforestation. That is, if these leading polluters live up to the pledges they made Thursday at a global climate summit organized by the White House.

It is not yet clear how they or any of the more than three dozen nations invited to affirm their commitment to climate action will fulfill these goals—especially when decisions are still being made in all countries that are certain to increase greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of rainforest in a world struggling to revive economies flattened by Covid-19.

But President Joe Biden, who called the Leaders Summit on Climate to mark the U.S. re-entry into the Paris accord, maintained that while nations’ past failures should be acknowledged, that should not extinguish hope for action that puts the world on a path to a sustainable future.

“No nation can solve this crisis on our own,” Biden said. “All of us, all of us—and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies—we have to step up.” He asked world leaders whose faces appeared in checkerboard rows on giant video screens in the East Room to imagine a world of more intense fires, floods, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes—the kind of disasters that have befallen many of them, including the United States, in just the last year.

“We can’t resign ourselves to that future,” Biden said. “We have to take action, all of us.”

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Two other nations made numeric pledges at the summit—Canada, which pledged to cut emissions 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and Japan, to cut emissions 46 percent from 2013 levels by 2030. Most other countries pledged to make further and more detailed announcements before climate talks scheduled for November in Glasgow.

Promises From Nations With Dismal Records

The Earth Day summit comes after four years in which the United States has been on the sidelines in the climate battle, because former President Donald Trump maintained that scientists did not know the truth about global warming and that he expected the Earth would someday start cooling again on its own.

Just how much Trump stood alone among world leaders in his climate denial became clear as each of the heads of state affirmed their commitment to climate action over a three-hour morning session. Even erstwhile Trump allies who have dismal records on climate, like Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro and Russian President Vladimir Putin, voiced concern over the climate crisis in their remarks.

Russia treats its international commitments with “the utmost responsibility,” Putin said, mentioning both the 1997 Kyoto and 2015 Paris accords, a pointed dig at the United States, which reneged on both. But under Putin’s leadership, the Russian Federation has focused on expanding domestic production and consumption of fossil fuels, especially on expanding exports of its abundant natural gas reserves. 

Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit climate science and policy institute that provides widely trusted assessments on the adequacy of national action, has rated Russia’s pledge so far under the Paris agreement as “critically insufficient” and consistent with a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius, a catastrophic level of warming. Putin provided no new numbers at the summit, but pledged to “significantly” reduce his country’s cumulative net emissions over the next three decades.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, accelerated Brazil’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, 10 years sooner than previously promised, and he reiterated an earlier pledge to end illegal deforestation by 2030. But last year, under Bolsonaro, deforestation in Brazil hit a 12-year high, rising nearly 10 percent in a single year. And national lawmakers in Brazil have attempted to use Covid-19 legislation to approve controversial ownership rights for illegally deforested land, raising the specter that the world’s most vital carbon sink, the Amazon, will continue to disappear. Carbon Action Tracker has rated Brazil’s Paris pledge as insufficient.

Russia and Brazil are hardly alone in failing to do their share to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as nations agreed to do in the Paris accord. In its latest “emissions gap” report, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that annual emissions would have to be cut 30 gigatons by 2030 to put the world on a 1.5-degree warming trajectory. That would be like removing emissions equivalent to China’s annual emissions for three years.

China, which is by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, did not offer a specific numeric goal for emissions reduction by 2030. But President Xi Jinping did surprise observers with his promise to “strictly limit” the increase in coal consumption over the course of the country’s 14th five-year plan—in other words, between now and 2025—and begin phasing it down in 2026.

“While the specifics are as yet unclear, this statement lays out a clear direction of travel and signals that the era of coal expansion in China is coming to an end,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at E3G, a European climate change think tank, on Twitter. China, which is now home to half the world’s coal fleet, lifted a two-year ban on new construction in 2018 and has permitted some 300 gigawatts of new coal-fired electricity stations.

“We should protect nature and preserve the environment like we protect our eyes,” said Xi.  

“We must be committed to green development. Green mountains are gold mountains,” he said, in his own way echoing the major theme set out by Biden, that a transition to cleaner energy would generate more jobs and lift up the economies that are now struggling in the midst of the pandemic.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, also sounded the theme that a clean energy transition would be “the engine for our global recovery.” And she was one of a number of leaders who thanked Biden for returning the United States to the fold on climate change.

“It is so good to have the U.S. back on our side,” said von der Leyen. “Together we can go faster and get further.”

US Sets an Ambitious Goal, Not Without Critics

The U.S. pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030, released by the White House a couple hours prior to the summit, was greeted positively by other world leaders and by many in the community of climate activists. 

Climate Action Tracker called it “the biggest U.S. step forward on climate in history,” noting it alone would close the global emissions gap by as much as 10 percent. Although the analytic groups said the pledged reduction was not yet compatible with a 1.5-degree pathway, it was “well on the way.” Still, there was disappointment that the United States did not adopt a separate ambitious goal to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas operations. Many activists view this as a lost opportunity, since the technology to capture methane is readily available and economical, and it could deliver a significant short-term cut while work continues on the more difficult task of cutting carbon dioxide.

And there were barbs from both the left and the right directed at the Biden administration’s climate goals. Climate activists who favor a full and rapid phase-out of fossil fuels carted pink wheelbarrows full of cow manure and dumped them outside the White House to display their dismay with a target they view as inadequate. While on Capitol Hill, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, called the U.S. target a “drastic and damaging pledge” that would cause energy prices to increase.

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Meanwhile, the business community, still trying to display a cooperative spirit with the new administration, stressed the need to find solutions that could win support from both Republicans and Democrats.

“President Biden is setting out an ambitious goal with today’s announcement,” said Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “Achieving that goal while also supporting economic growth and job creation will require new technology and new policy that is durable and has the support of bipartisan members of Congress, consumers, business and other stakeholders.”

Some Countries Raise a Touchy Subject

Biden and his special envoy for climate, John Kerry, sought to emphasize throughout the summit that federal governments do not by themselves have the finances or ability to solve the climate crisis. Biden and Kerry emphasized the need for the private sector—especially the finance industry and agriculture—to take a leading role in hastening the transition to cleaner energy. Kerry said the world needs additional investments of at least $1 trillion annually over the next 30 years.

“There is no way that any one government anywhere, or even a group of governments, is going to put that kind of funding to the task,” Kerry said.

Biden pledged to double by 2024 the annual U.S. government climate funding to developing countries relative to the average level at the end of the Obama administration, while tripling the amount devoted to adaptation. Although the material provided by the White House did not give specific numbers, an administration official was quoted in Climate Home News giving figures that would add up to $5.6 billion in annual funding by 2024, with $1.5 billion of that devoted to adaptation. That is somewhat short of the $8 billion commitment that global environmental activists sought from the administration, and developing countries have been pushing hard for half of climate aid to be devoted to adaptation.

Biden also has promised to take some of the steps that financial leaders said would be important for attracting private finance, like developing stronger climate risk disclosure requirements and ending government subsidies for fossil fuels. He has said the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a federal government aid agency, would roll out a new climate strategy this month, aiming to have more than 50 percent of its program funding go to climate-related investments and expanding its public-private partnerships to catalyze more private finance. 

But several summit speakers raised a politically touchy subject for the Biden Administration; saying the key to unlocking private financing included putting a price on carbon. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked that other world leaders have been “very interested in the fact that not only had I brought in a carbon tax… but I won elections with that at the heart of our campaign.”

The Biden administration has been notably silent on the idea of establishing a tax or price for carbon. Currently, neither Democratic nor Republican leaders on Capitol Hill back the idea, and Biden’s team includes economists who argue that other measures—like clean energy standards—should come first.

Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said a failure to adopt a carbon price would translate into failure to tackle climate change.

“A robust price on carbon, together with phasing out harmful subsidies provides a critical market signal to producers and to consumers in all sectors of the economy,” she said. “Without it, we will not reach our climate stabilization goals.”

She recommended that a selection of the largest emitters, such as the group of nations in the G20, agree on a system with a “price floor” that would reflect different countries’ levels of development, while ensuring the price was high enough. Such a system, Georgieva said, could avoid the type of carbon border adjustment—a kind of climate tariff Europe was working to implement, as European Council President Charles Michel said earlier in the session. Kerry has urged the EU to delay the border tariff plan, and Indonesian Prime Minister Joko Widodo pointedly ended his summit presentation speaking out against the idea. 

At the summit, executives from major financial institutions, including Bank of America and Citigroup, expressed their commitments to mobilizing trillions of dollars in investment toward climate solutions. Oliver Bäte, chairman of the German insurance giant Allianz, however, struck a more somber tone, saying action from the private sector must be mandatory, not voluntary, as it is for the most part, and that rosy goals for 2050 must be backed up with short-term targets for emissions cuts within the next few years.

“We really need to make sure people cannot sneak out and not deliver,” he said.

Fiji Today, New York City, Houston and Miami Tomorrow

The White House only presented a top-line target for cutting U.S. emissions in half from 2005 by 2030; it did not detail how much it hoped to slash emissions from each sector. But Biden made clear that in addition to the energy sector efforts that made up President Barack Obama’s original Paris climate pledge, his administration would be looking to agriculture to be part of the solution. A fact sheet said the administration would pursue “a range of programs and measures including nature-based solutions for ecosystems ranging from our forests and agricultural soils to our rivers and coasts,” as well as “ocean-based solutions.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who moderated a panel on adaptation at the summit, filled in some of the details: a significant expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program, a voluntary program in which farmers are paid to set aside land. Overall, Vilsack said, the department will spend nearly $1 billion on conservation programs and climate-focused research.

During the session, Vilsack asked leaders from several countries, including Pakistan, Fiji and Morocco, how they planned to prepare for the growing threats from climate change.

Echoing earlier comments, many of these leaders expressed relief that the United States was back in the climate fight, but also reiterated that they would need its help.

“Adaptation demands American leadership, innovation, ambition and finance on a scale that more than compensates for the last four years,” said Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Attorney General and Minister for Economy, Public Enterprises, Civil Service and Communications of Fiji.

The island nation lost nearly one-third of its GDP when Cyclone Winston hit in 2016. “Tomorrow, of course, it will be New York City, Houston and Miami,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.

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