Biden Heads for Glasgow Climate Talks with High Ambitions, but Minus the Full Slate of Climate Policies He’d Hoped

The United States arrives at COP26 promising to halve its emissions with an all-of-government approach. Its largest climate actions, though, are still tied up in Congress.

President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's social spending plans, as US Vice President Kamala Harris look on, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Oct. 28, 2021. Biden set out details of a revamped $1.75 trillion social spending package Thursday to structure a more equitable economy and tackle climate change, the culmination of weeks of intense negotiation. Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's social spending plans, as US Vice President Kamala Harris look on, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Oct. 28, 2021. Biden set out details of a revamped $1.75 trillion social spending package Thursday to structure a more equitable economy and tackle climate change, the culmination of weeks of intense negotiation. Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

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When President Joe Biden arrives in Glasgow on Monday for the annual United Nations talks on climate change, he will bring a big U.S. pledge, nearly half of his Cabinet and a handful of deals with other countries that have been hammered out over weeks of hectic diplomacy.

But he had hoped to bring a much greater demonstration that the world’s largest historic contributor to greenhouse gas pollution was ready to resume leadership in a drive for solutions: landmark climate legislation from Congress.

Instead, Biden unveiled the outline of a scaled-back plan that the White House says can win support across the warring factions of his own party. If the plan passes, it will be less than many climate advocates hoped, and with no Republican support, the achievement will remain fragile.

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In other words, Biden is bringing to Glasgow more proof that the United States political system isn’t ready to deliver strong action on climate policy.

“No one got everything they wanted, including me,” Biden said, just before departing Washington, D.C. on Thursday. “But that’s what compromise is. That’s consensus. And that’s what I ran on. I’ve long said compromise and consensus are the only way to get big things done in a democracy.”

But U.S.-style democracy, which has given outsized influence to a small coal state representative like Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, hasn’t been especially good at getting climate policy done. So, in the months that Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan was stalled in Congress—mainly over objections voiced by Manchin—his team started laying the groundwork for other climate achievements through strong executive action.

The signal Biden hopes to send at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) is that he, his executive agencies and other players in the U.S. economy can set the nation on a path to his ambitious goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030. At the same time, Biden hopes to show how a U.S. diplomatic offensive led by Climate Envoy John Kerry will help bring the rest of the world along.

“Glasgow has already summoned more climate ambition than the world has ever seen,” said Kerry in an address Thursday at the London School of Economics. “And in that regard, Glasgow has already achieved success.”

“Is all the world fully aligned with what science says we must do to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis?” asked Kerry. “In two words: Not yet. But more countries than ever before are stepping up.”

Big Promises to Keep 

COP26, delayed for one year due to the Covid pandemic, was meant to be an opportunity for nations to ratchet up their climate action goals under a five-year check-in process established by the 2015 Paris accord. But the U.N. Environment Programme reported this week that the new pledges are far off track, and would have to be seven times more ambitious to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Nevertheless, the commitments now on the table would hold warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius, not enough to head off catastrophic impacts, but better than the 3 or 4 degrees Celsius warming projected before the Paris accord, Claire Healy, who heads the U.S. office of the trans-Atlantic think tank E3G, pointed out.

“I don’t think we can talk about success and failure. We can talk about progress,” she said. “And no matter who shows up with what, it’s never going to be enough.”

The U.N. report said that the United States has increased its ambition more than any of the other major economies in the G20, with Biden nearly doubling President Barack Obama’s initial pledge that the United States would cut emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025.

However, the U.N. report noted that the United States does not yet even have policies in place to achieve the original Obama goal, and needs to “make significant additional efforts” to reach Biden’s new target.

So Congress’ failure to get behind Biden’s full “Build Back Better” package was a blow to the president as he headed to Glasgow, even though he characterized the slimmed-down version as “historic.” One of the elements chopped from the original proposal was the largest single climate expenditure—a proposed $150 billion Clean Electricity Payment Program—a carrot-and-stick approach to getting utilities to switch to renewable energy and lower carbon fuel sources. Analysts said it would have driven more carbon emissions cuts by far than any other element of Biden’s package.

The fate of another big-ticket climate item, a fee on methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, also was in doubt. The White House didn’t mention it, while some members of Congress said work was still underway to include it in the final legislative language. The uncertainty over that key program, even as Biden set off for a G20 summit this weekend in Rome, showed that the battle over climate policy on Capitol Hill would not end just because COP26 was beginning.

Still, Biden emphasized that the framework for a scaled-back Build Back Better package would include $555 billion in funding for climate initiatives—more than Congress has ever spent before. It includes a large array of tax and consumer incentives to spur renewable energy and energy efficiency as well as a transition to electric vehicles. It includes funding to address the woes of communities that have a disproportionate burden of pollution and it would help coastal communities and farms become more resilient.

“We will truly transform this nation,” Biden said.

Healy said other nations, particularly in Europe, are still stinging from four years of U.S. acrimony under President Donald Trump, and they remain uncertain of the future direction of politics in the United States. But Biden retains a reputation as a straight-shooter, and the fact that climate change remains a large part of the framework for his economic plan is important.

“I don’t think anybody who’s been watching the situation would doubt that Biden believes this is an existential crisis,” she said. “He has the best intentions, and he has worked bloody hard to try and get something to show at Glasgow.”  

A Cabinet Show of Force

Biden will be flanked by 13 Cabinet members and other senior officials in Glasgow—sending a message that even if Congress is hesitating, his administration is engaged in an all-out effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The group includes Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who is leading an effort to assess the potential risk that climate change poses to America’s financial system; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who announced this fall that he is transferring billions of dollars from the Depression-era Commodity Credit Corp. to pay for a carbon-saving program for farms and other climate measures; and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who just unveiled a plan to incorporate climate adaptation and resilience considerations into his agency’s grantmaking.

“President Biden has an enormous opportunity to animate his whole-of-government approach to tackling the climate crisis, and demonstrate the resolve and staying power of U.S. climate action,” said Brendan Guy, lead strategist for international climate change for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The main message is that there are multiple pathways to thread the needle.” Strong regulation and state action can achieve cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, just as action by Congress can, he said.

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An example the Biden team is likely to highlight is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan’s expected announcement of the most sweeping methane regulations ever proposed for the U.S. oil and gas industry. EPA’s new proposal would subject violators to penalties for failure to detect and control emissions from both new and existing oil and gas operations. Depending on how it is implemented, it could have the same impact as the methane fee that may not make it into Biden’s package.

A U.S. demonstration of resolve on methane was important because the United States and the European Union have been the driving force behind a Global Methane Pledge that is to be highlighted during the World Leaders Summit that will take place on Monday and Tuesday—the first two days of the COP. Sixty countries so far have signed on to the pledge to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030. Because methane, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, is a short-lived greenhouse gas, staying in the atmosphere only nine years, reductions can help hold down warming while the world tackles the more difficult task of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

A Diplomatic Mission 

The methane agreement is one of a number of multilateral climate deals involving the United States that are expected to be announced at the COP.

Just since September, Kerry has traveled to China, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia and several European countries for climate talks. He unveiled a statement of joint cooperation with Mexico on renewable energy deployment and stopping deforestation. He launched a U.S.-India Climate Action and Finance Mobilization Dialogue. And his deputy special envoy, Jonathan Pershing, a longtime U.S. climate negotiator who helped forge the Paris agreement, traveled throughout Africa to talk about finance.

“We, the United States, are committed to working with these nations that did not cause this problem, but will suffer some of the worst consequences,” said Kerry in London on Thursday.

Biden announced in September at the U.N. General Assembly that the United States would more than double its global climate finance contribution to $11.4 billion a year by 2024. Many advocates for poorer nations welcomed that announcement, while noting that the current round of climate finance from the United States—$3.1 billion in the Senate’s version of the budget—is stalled in Congress along with the rest of the Fiscal Year 2022 federal budget.

A large focus of the COP is expected to be implementing a network of support for countries that are grappling with irreparable harm from climate change—what negotiators have called “loss and damage.” The United States was one of several wealthy countries that opposed including a loss and damage process in the Paris agreement itself, arguing that the accord already included provisions to address adaptation. But vulnerable countries are continuing to press their case that more is needed.

“When we’re talking about ‘loss and damage,’ we’re talking about the kinds of impacts that you can’t even adapt to,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The damages are very, very real, and we’re starting to see the leading edge of what’s likely to be a lot of displacement of people.”

Indeed, a backdrop of COP26 certainly will be the unprecedented climate impacts felt around the world over the past year—the landslides that destroyed the camps of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, the wildfires in Siberia, Greece, Turkey and the western United States, the deadly flooding in Germany, New York City and elsewhere.

Amid an atmosphere of growing crisis, many environmentalists think that other nations will be eager to see re-engagement by the United States, despite Biden’s woes on Capitol Hill. David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s climate initiative, said he doesn’t think Biden will be judged on what legislation comes out of Congress alone, but by what his agencies are doing, what U.S. states and businesses are doing and the role the United States will play in addressing the most vulnerable countries.

As for Congress, “I think the key thing to keep in mind is that this is a process that takes time,” said Waskow. “I think other countries are aware of that.”

Still, a key theme of COP26 is also sure to be how little time is left.