Biden to reveal US climate intent as he hosts summit of global leaders
World’s biggest carbon emitters, including China and Russia, will be in virtual room
The United States is scaling up its climate ambition in tandem with whistle-stop visits to big carbon-emitting countries in an effort to forge greater support globally for collective action.
The move in advance of the critical COP26 UN gathering later this year is the polar opposite of the stalling and climate science denialism of the Trump administration and is built on the platform of the US return to the Paris Agreement fold. The backdrop is of failure by its signatories to deliver the agreement’s commitments.
President Joe Biden will provide real indication of renewed US intent over coming days and host a virtual summit of global leaders on Thursday and Friday.
The scale of the problem is illustrated by an International Energy Agency (IEA) forecast that emissions are set to jump this year; the second-biggest annual rise in history as economies pour stimulus cash into fossil fuels in the recovery from the Covid-19 recession.
“The leap will be second only to the massive rebound 10 years ago after the financial crisis, and will put climate hopes out of reach unless governments act quickly,” the IEA warned.
Surging use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, for electricity is largely driving the rise, especially across Asia but also in the US. Coal’s rebound causes concern because it comes despite plunging prices for renewable energy, which is now cheaper than coal.
It coincided with the World Meteorological Organisation confirming that 2020 was one of the warmest years on record.
US climate envoy John Kerry has been attempting to persuade global leaders to step up ambition, as current decarbonisation efforts are grossly short of keeping temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees – a key Paris pact target.
His ploy is brutally clear: “We need to go where the emissions are to start with,” he said at a recent IEA event. “This is not about politics ... The planet is screaming at us, with the feedback loops that are telling us every single day, ‘Get this done’, not to mention the next generations saying, ‘Hey adults, please be adults, make the decisions we need to make’.”
Even if the world did everything pledged under the accord, average global temperature would still rise by more than four degrees this century, he has told the world’s worst carbon polluters. His message was: “We have to speed up.”
It has yielded success, indicated by participation in the summit by China and Russia in spite of heightened strains ranging across trade, election interference allegations, cyberattacks and human rights abuses.
The US and China – collectively responsible for 50 per cent of emissions – agreed last week to co-operate following talks in Shanghai between Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua.
Their co-operation is key to the success of global efforts to curb climate change and to achieving a COP26 outcome in Glasgow that gets the Paris pact on the right trajectory and strengthens implementation. The two countries will co-operate “in multilateral processes, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement”.
President Vladimir Putin will “outline Russia’s approaches in the context of forging broad international co-operation aimed at overcoming the negative effects of global climate change”, the Kremlin said.
The position is less clear with India, the world’s third-biggest emitter behind the US and China, which is under pressure to commit itself to net-zero emissions by 2050.
“India is getting the job done on climate, pushing the curve,” Kerry said during his visit to New Delhi. “You are indisputably a world leader already in the deployment of renewable energy.”
India, however, is unlikely to bind itself to net-zero as its energy demand is projected to grow more than that of any other nation over the next 20 years – as its population is set to exceed that of China’s.
As COP26 host, the UK government is announcing a racheting up of actions, notably a 78 per cent cut in emissions by 2035 from a 1990 baseline, and including its aviation and shipping emissions – a world first on both counts, and considered the best example of “more in a shorter time frame”.
It is sending the right signals, according to Tom Burke of the climate change think tank E3G, but UK delivery on climate actions in the past has been poor. It could prove to be “a Boris blunderbuss” aimed in the wrong direction, he added, when most effort should be concentrated on energy efficiency, wind and solar, battery storage and strengthening grids.
Ireland was not among countries initially invited to the summit, but subsequently got an invitation in recognition of its scaled-up climate ambition and its efforts to support building of resilience to climate disruption in developing countries, including small island states of the South Pacific.
Ireland’s presence on the UN Security Council is likely to be a factor in this. In an address to the council last February, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney highlighted how climate change could undermine international peace and security, “and the importance of Security Council engagement on the matter to achieve a more peaceful world”. Moreover, Biden has declared the climate threat “a national security issue”.
The summit is the first of a series of global gatherings over coming months where voluntary commitments are expected to be replaced by robust targets. But it will be about a lot more than CO2 cuts. Mobilising public and private sector finance to drive the net-zero transition and to help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts is set to finally move centre stage.
The US has described its efforts as an attempt “to catalyse efforts that keep that 1.5-degree goal within reach”. The ingredients for the right reaction are being lined up, while many countries will choose this week to assert “We’re in”.