Eager to lead? The US under Joe Biden has ramped up its climate ambitions and seeks to return to the helm of international climate action | Photo: Inside Climate News

Biden summit adjusts temperature for climate action, but it’s still below optimum

After four years of the Trump administration’s dismantling the United States’ environment programmes, climate has evidently returned as a central plank of American policy. And the White House has pulled out all stops to make sure the world takes notice. At the ongoing World Climate Leaders’ Summit, being hosted by the US to mark their return to the global climate fight, US President Joe Biden announced a doubling of their Paris Agreement commitments and cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) by 50-52% within the next decade. With current national commitments likely to amount to just a 1% reduction in emissions over the next decade, Biden’s enhanced ambition is good news. However, it fails to align with meeting the 1.5°C goal, which according to experts would require the US to cut emissions by 57-70% in the next decade.

But while Biden’s active diplomatic outreach to drum up support for the summit has garnered several announcements of raised ambitions, the US’ problematic past on climate commitments still hangs heavy over any proclamations of American leadership.

Grand plans

Climate returned as a top priority for the White House almost as soon as Biden assumed office. With the current administration seeking to create as much distance between itself and its predecessor as possible on policy matters, Biden’s first major moves in office included a slew of climate-centric executive orders. Over the past three months, pieces of Biden’s emission reduction plan have become clearer.

“Biden comes into this Summit with a mandate, he ran on an aggressive climate platform, he built his argument to the American people around 3 key goals – a net-zero economy by 2050, a 100% clean power sector by 2035, and he linked the climate crisis to the economic crisis and the racial justice crisis,” says John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff and currently the Chair of American think-tank Centre for American Progress.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration released its preliminary budget draft that included significant increases in climate action and research allocations. In the run up to the ongoing summit, the “skinny” budget proposed a 21.3% hike in allocations to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The proposal also included increases in outlays for clean energy development and to support vulnerable communities from climate impacts.

The US’ low carbon push depends heavily on a rapid greening of the country’s energy supply and electricity grid. A study by the Environmental Defense Fund and Rhodium Group found that shifting electricity production to solar and wind, as well as closing coal power plants, could produce steep cuts by 2030, which will be faster that emission cuts from cars, trucks and industrial plants, like steel and cement.

Mission transition

On paper, Biden is making the right moves. The proposed budget would also increase the Energy Department’s (DOE) budget by 10.2% to $46 billion. Under this plan, the DOE will invest $1.9 billion to launch a clean energy and workforce initiative to meet the goal of decarbonising the electricity sector by 2035 through a clean electricity and energy efficiency standard. The state plans, however, only project a doubling of the US renewable capacity by 2050, with natural gas-fired generation remaining constant through 2050.

The Biden administration has already announced a target to cut the cost of solar energy by 60% by 2030 – a necessary step to achieve 100% clean electricity grid by 2035. That means the US will have to increase solar capacity five times faster than it is currently while scaling down the current cost of 4.6 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to 3 cents/kWh by 2025 and 2 cents/kWh by 2030.

While past plans towards decarbonisation of energy have sparked fears in the US fossil fuel industry, this time things seem to be changing. America’s largest coal miners’ union, the United Mine Workers of America, said it backed a renewable energy future provided that miners get “good-paying jobs” in return. The union is asking for tax incentives for manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines in coalfield areas, with laid-off miners given hiring preference for those jobs.

Biden’s plans for decarbonisation also bets big on a transition in the transport sector. In March, the US surpassed the milestone of installing 100,000 public chargers. The country now aims to expand the charging network to 500,000 stations. Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes a transformational $15 billion investment to fund this.  

Interestingly, the Biden administration also proposes to set aside $10 billion to  expand climate action through a dedicated task force on the ground. This Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) is a part of the $2 trillion infrastructure package that promises 1.5 million outdoor jobs. The CCC will help install solar panels and wind turbines, maintain public transit systems, and retrofit buildings with energy efficient equipment. The package also includes a push to create climate and disaster resilient infrastructure that extends beyond just roads and bridges. The plan also includes $16 billion to plug abandoned oil wells, which have emerged as a major source of methane emissions.

Biden’s clear messaging on climate has reportedly also created a “gold rush” in the country’s carbon market. As the infrastructure plan gains traction, America’s farm country is busy building up their carbon credit inventory to cash in on pollution offsets in agriculture.

Failing on fairness?

Touted as an “aggressive plan” to fight climate change, there are still questions on whether even this raised ambition can be called fair. A newly published civil society model document, which examines ‘fair share’ contributions for the US, states that considering the historic responsibility of the US, a fair cut in GHG emissions by 2030 amounts to a whopping 195%. This implies going beyond just a 100% decarbonisation that is currently being considered broadly as a mid-century target. While advocacy groups behind the calculations admit that this is an impractical proposition to be taken up fully through emission cuts. Instead, they argue for the country to reduce its carbon footprint by 70% and contribute the remaining 125% through finance toward developing countries’ emissions reductions.

To arrive at this conclusion, the authors looked at cumulative national emissions since 1950 and national capacities for climate change mitigation. According to the report, the US would need to provide $570 billion by 2030 in assistance to other countries’ emission reduction efforts. The authors further state that if the costs of damages of climate impacts are incorporated into calculations, this amount rises almost threefold to around $1.6 trillion.

By comparison Biden’s budget proposal calls for a $1.2 billion outlay toward the Green Climate Fund (GCF) as a part of Obama’s promised $3 billion. The budget proposal also includes additional sums of $485 million allocated to support other multilateral climate initiatives and $691 million for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to assist developing countries in adapting to climate change impacts. These, however, come nowhere close to what is required to accelerate low carbon development in the developing countries.

“The US must make a bold commitment to climate finance, both to make up for lost ground under the previous administration as well as ramp up its ambition, as required right now. The Biden administration’s initial budget proposal of $1.2 billion for the GCF falls far short of what’s needed,” says Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

This disparity came to the fore earlier this month during US Climate Envoy John Kerry’s visit to India – a prominent stop on Kerry’s itinerary to drum up support for Biden’s climate summit. Following the meeting with the special envoy, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s office tweeted, “ (The FM) stressed on the need for assessment of the $100 billion commitment per year from developed countries to developing countries. FM underscored the need to enhance financial flows to developing countries beyond $100bn to strengthen climate action.”

To put the inadequacy of the financial commitments in perspective, new estimates suggest that India alone needs around $6 trillion to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in just the power sector.

“Ultimately, the world needs $90 trillion of investment in both climate mitigation and climate resilience over the course of the next decade. That’s not going to come from governments alone. We need to stimulate private finance and ensure that it is not just going to the developed world, but is reaching the transformation of societies across the globe,” says Podesta.

The trust deficit

Analysts agree that without meeting commitments to increase public climate finance, the US can’t build trust with developing countries. In addition to the questions surrounding America’s fair share of responsibility, the US also carries the baggage of an obstructionist and fickle past when it comes to its climate commitments. Biden’s enthusiasm to be at the helm of the international cooperation for climate action and his active diplomatic outreach have started to repair some of the damage done by the previous administration. While the decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement has been welcomed across the board, there is also stark recognition of the country’s poor record when it comes to climate commitments, especially under Republican governments. The US withdrew from international agreements on climate under both Donald Trump in 2016 and George W Bush in 2001.

“The US’s ability – indeed its credibility – to unlock ambition from others is crucially dependent on what the Biden administration commits to via its NDC and climate finance. And just to be clear, our bold contribution to global climate goals is also deeply connected to our national interest in this moment….,” says Cleetus.

While Kerry’s visit to China earlier this month resulted in pronouncements of cooperation between the world’s two biggest emitters on climate action, the Asian economic powerhouse still has one eye on the US’ spotty past on climate. “Its return is by no means a glorious comeback but rather the student playing truant getting back to class,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on US’ return to the Paris Agreement. China did not raise ambition beyond its 2060 carbon neutrality goal, but President Xi did say the country will peak coal consumption by 2025, linking for the first time coal with his climate policy.

Observers have also questioned the US government’s continued support of overseas fossil fuel developments despite domestic moves towards decarbonisation of energy systems. US public finance for overseas fossil fuel projects is estimated to average more than $4 billion annually over the past decade, according to Oil Change International – at times exceeding $10 billion in a single year. Currently, several big players in the American oil and gas sector, including ExxonMobil, AES Corporation, and GE are involved in US gas projects, particularly in Asia and Africa. ExxonMobil’s Mozambique gas project has even managed to secure billions in political risk insurance and financial support from the US Export-Import Bank and the US Development Finance Corporation. Major natural gas expansions to feed an export-oriented strategy has sparked fears of the US exporting its emissions and delaying the adoption of renewable energy in developing countries.  

Worsening the existing trust deficit, vulnerable communities, both in the US and abroad, have expressed the biggest objections to oil and coal companies seeking bail outs to push various unproven carbon capture and sequestration technologies claiming to speedily remove emissions. Latest is ExxonMobil’s $100 billion carbon project pitch to Biden. The oil giant wants Washington to give tax breaks and other assistance for its carbon-capture project near Houston where most frontline communities live. They also want the US to establish a price on carbon that will help create a market for the company’s new business of capturing emissions.

Even as the world is expected to rebound in CO2 emissions in 2021, Biden’s legacy will depend on progressive action. Looking to the future, diplomacy and showmanship can only set the stage. The show will very much still depend on political skill and will – not just from Biden, but from the entire American political apparatus.

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