November 5, 2021 What Negotiations Over U.S. Climate Policy Tells Us About COP

Welcome back to Today’s Climate, a newsletter that examines the most pressing news about our rapidly warming world every Tuesday and Friday afternoon. Let’s start with a quick recap of the global summit that many believe will make or break the world’s ability to slow the climate crisis. 

As the first week of COP26 wraps up, the negotiations have so far received mixed reviews. On a positive note, more than 100 nations pledged to reduce their emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and many others also promised to halt and reverse deforestation. And on Thursday, more than 40 countries vowed to phase out coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

But many people are pointing to the imbalance in the negotiations between wealthy countries, responsible for the vast majority of the world’s carbon emissions, and developing nations, which suffer disproportionately from the consequences of rising temperatures but did little to cause them. 

A new report by the United Nations says that some impacts from climate change are already irreversible, and efforts to protect the nations most vulnerable to rising seas and more extreme weather are lagging. One activist representing a coalition of Indigenous communities and frontline groups compared this year’s climate negotiations to the COP summit in 2009, which was widely regarded as a failure—saddling poorer nations in the global South that had limited access to the talks with “hugely expensive” impacts, mitigations and adaptations.

So, can wealthy nations make good on their promises this year to get the world back on track to limit future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius? That’s the $50 trillion question and the outlook is murky. Looking at how negotiations over climate policy in the U.S. are panning out is one early indicator of just how difficult the task of reining in global emissions will be.

The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and historically the biggest contributor to global warming. As President Biden left Glasgow on Tuesday night, hailing the summit’s early progress, he returned to grueling talks back home over his own imperiled climate agenda.

In the last two months alone, Biden’s massive budget package, which focuses on expanding the social safety net and addressing climate change, has been whittled down from $3.5 trillion to $2.2 trillion, to $1.75 trillion. Among the provisions chopped from the bill was Biden’s flagship climate policy, the $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP). 

It is a loss that jeopardizes Biden’s key benchmark of slashing U.S. emissions 50 percent by 2030, something he spent much of his time at COP trying to convince his peers he could accomplish. Some analysts have said Biden could still achieve half of that 2030 target through the $555 billion in climate-related funding, mostly for clean energy efforts, still included in the bill.

But whether the United States can pass the measure at all remains in question. On Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin, who has been the main obstacle to the budget bill, held a press conference merely to remind people he still didn’t support it. And as apparent progress emerged over the package, the West Virginia Democrat has continued to move the goal post. Last week, even after the CEPP was removed and the bill’s total spending was slashed in half, Manchin said he wouldn’t support funding of electric vehicle charging stations. This week, he said he didn’t approve of how tax credits for EV purchases would be given out.

So, what do we keep an eye on as COP moves into its second week? One interesting item will be a Nov. 7 panel that aims to highlight how U.S. states are still filling the void left by a lack of federal climate action—a message that was very familiar during the Trump administration and may become increasingly so during Biden’s tenure.

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll see you next Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

7.6 billion

Measured in metric tons, that’s the amount of carbon emissions that came from China’s coal use this year, which is greater than the total carbon dioxide emissions of any other country.