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News from Joe Biden's “Leaders Summit on Climate”

Notable US pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030 with the goal of zero emissions by 2050. The pledges of the other countries were then gathered in view of COP26.

by Margherita Bianchi - IAI
04 May 2021
7 min read
by Margherita Bianchi - IAI
04 May 2021
7 min read

On the day of his inauguration, Biden kept his promise to re-join the Paris Agreement; one hundred days in, he played virtual host to 40 heads of state or government at the Leaders Summit on Climate with the aim of encouraging the efforts of the world's major economies towards what was established in 2015. Participants also included the 17 countries of the Major Economies Forum (MEF) on Energy and Climate (responsible for 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and global GDP) and numerous representatives of international organizations, sub-national governments, businesses and indigenous communities. The Summit was an opportunity to update the US medium-term Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and to gather pledges from other countries ahead of COP26 in November. However, Biden will have to deal with a fragmented political landscape at home (even among progressives), with the legacy of weak US climate credibility (from the Kyoto Protocol to the Trump presidency) and with international climate cooperation that has to be rebuilt and revived.

The new US contribution

Biden has announced the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030 with the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. This is clearly a very significant acceleration compared to that announced by the Obama administration in the 2015 NDC (down 26-28 percent by 2025). Meanwhile, two years ago, total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States had already fallen by 13 percent from 2005 levels, largely thanks to the greater share of gas and renewables in the US power sector.

Ahead of the summit, President Biden launched or announced multiple initiatives. Among these, the most interesting at the moment is the law on infrastructures, which would contribute significantly to the decarbonization of the electricity sector by 2035 (previously announced by Biden), introducing a clean electricity standard and including investments of USD 100 billion in the electricity grid and in clean technologies. However, it is estimated that a complete decarbonization of the electricity sector today would result in a drop in CO2 emissions of around 38 percent compared to 2005. This makes clear the need for significant changes across all sectors of the American economy, both by expanding electrification and by investing in clean molecules. The law, likely to be put to a vote in Congress next July, also proposes allocating USD 174 billion to build 500,000 new electric vehicle charging stations by 2030, electrifying the federal fleet and replacing at least 20 percent of buses with electric models. Joe Biden also wants to adapt outdated infrastructure to better respond to extreme weather events and improve the efficiency of millions of homes, especially for the benefit of the most vulnerable communities. But congressional support (both in the House and Senate) is very uncertain, and not just because of the more reluctant Republicans. 

Meanwhile, Biden has established his whole-of-government approach to climate by placing officials and experts in all of the major federal agencies and appointing them among his leading advisors. Many of his cabinet members attended the Summit, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy - as well as, of course, the President 's Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry.

International ambition

Bringing the major emitters and developing countries together at a single table marks the new US tactic towards promoting a more collaborative approach internationally. There is a particularly significant message from Japan, which is committed to reducing emissions by between 46 percent and 50 percent by 2030 compared to 2013, reinforcing the ambitious course of the G7 club. The contribution presented by Canada (a reduction of 40-45 percent compared to 2005) thus appeared less ambitious. South Korea pledged to stop funding coal-powered plants overseas - a serious blow to the coal sector and above all a very important signal for Asia, where China and Japan continue their silence on the matter. In the meantime, however, China - the largest emitter in the world in absolute terms - announces its commitment to reduce domestic coal consumption gradually over the period 2026-2030; although Xi Jinping has yet to clarify how he intends to stop the expansion of the sector after 2025. Meanwhile India has created a new partnership with the US on climate and clean energy and South Africa pledged to peak emissions within four years. Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia, as expected, did not present any significant changes, while Brazil pledged to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

Mario Draghi, host of the G20, underlined Italy's commitment to use its stake in the Multilateral Development Banks to set ambitious climate finance goals and to ensure that activities are aligned with the Paris Agreement, while the only notable pledge among the leaders was the US announcement that it will double climate finance funding by 2024. Adaptation and resilience - thorny issues on international tables - will hopefully be the focus of greater attention at the Petersberg Dialogue and at the event for financing the African economies on May 18.

Looking to Glasgow

The background to the Summit is the very recent data from the International Energy Agency, (IEA) which predicts an increase of 1.5 billion tons of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021, the second largest increase in history - equivalent to almost two thirds of total EU emissions according to the Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol. This worrying increase comes mainly from the growing use of coal, which continues to be used on a large scale to generate electricity. It is clear that there is an absolute need for greater joint efforts, and initiatives such as President Biden's are therefore important. Integrating climate policy with other policy areas - trade, security, technology, industrial competition - a fortiori obliges the President to expand global collaboration, in part to achieve his own internal objectives. This newfound US climate diplomacy has already achieved its first results ahead of Glasgow - most recently the US-China joint climate statement following the meeting between John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua. The United Kingdom and Italy, organizers of COP26, meanwhile try to pave the way, also through the G7 and the G20, and keep ambition high in terms of targets and green recovery. This includes the sustained plan to reduce emissions in the EU (55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990) and the ambition of the United Kingdom, with the target of a 78 percent reduction by 2035. 

 

The author: Margherita Bianchi

Researcher at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI).