The New Zealand Herald
Can Biden rally world’s polluters to climate fight?
President’s first step before global summit is making any US pledges on cutting emissions believable
United States President Joe Biden is convening a coalition of the willing, the unwilling, the desperate-for-help and the avid-for-money for a global summit today aimed at rallying the worst polluters to act faster against climate change.
The President’s first task: Convincing the world that the politically fractured US isn’t just willing when it comes to Biden’s new ambitious emissions-cutting pledges, but also able.
Success for Biden in the virtual summit of 40 leaders will be making his expected promises — halving coal and petroleum emissions at home and financing climate efforts abroad — believable enough to persuade other powers to make big changes of their own.
For small countries already fighting for their survival, global climate progress noticeably slowed in the four years of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the effort. Panama Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes hopes the US’ highprofile return to international climate work will spur months of one-on-one worldwide deal-making leading up to November. That’s when there will be United Nations talks in Glasgow, where about 200 Governments will be asked to spell out what each is willing to do to keep the Earth from becoming a far hotter, more dangerous place.
With Biden’s summit, “we can start with that momentum,” Mouynes said. In Panama, freshwater shortages that officials blame on climate change already are complicating shipping through the Panama Canal, one of the world’s main trade routes and the country’s main money earner. Even Panama’s best climate safeguards, like hotlines and surveillance drones to catch rainforest logging, aren’t enough to save the country on their own, she says. “Otherwise it’s just empty speeches.” The summit will see Biden, who campaigned on promises for a highemployment, climate-saving technological transformation of the US economy, pledge to halve the amount of coal and petroleum pollution the US is pumping out by 2030, officials said this week. That’s compared with levels in 2005, and nearly double the voluntary target the
US set at the 2015 Paris climate accord.
The European Parliament has confirmed it will set a similarly ambitious target. The US is looking to other allies, such as Japan and Canada, to announce their own intensified efforts, hoping that will spur China and others to slow building of coal-fired power plants and otherwise chill their smokestacks.
And the world is looking to well-off countries to make clear how they’ll help poorer countries shutter coal plants and retool energy grids, including $2 billion the US promised but has never paid.
“The summit is not necessarily about everyone else bringing something new to the table — it’s really about the US bringing their target to the world,” said Joanna Lewis, an expert in China energy and environment at Georgetown University in Washington.
This is hardly perfect time for the US to try to spur action for multiple reasons, and the summit will play out as a climate telethonstyle livestream because of Covid19. The world’s top two climate offenders, China and the US, are
feuding over non-climate issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping waited until yesterday to confirm he would even take part. India, the third-biggest emitter of fossil fuel fumes, is pressing the US and other wealthier nations to pay out the billions of dollars they’ve promised to help poorer nations build alternatives to coal plants and energy-sucking power grids. “Where is this money? There is no money in sight,” Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said this month. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nation by some assessments is the fourth-worst polluter, also accepted the US invitation but is fuming over Biden calling him a “killer”, as part of high tensions over Putin’s aggressiveness abroad and US sanctions. And at home, political divisions exposed by Trump’s presidency have left the US weaker than in 2015. Unable to guarantee that a different President in 2024 won’t undo Biden’s climate work, his Administration has argued that market forces — with a boost to start — will soon make cleaner fuels and energy efficiency too cheap and consumer-friendly to trash. Having the US, with its influence and status, back in the climate game is important, said Lauri Myllyvirta of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki.
But hoping the world will forget about the past four years seems like wishful thinking, he said. “Every election is now basically a coin toss between complete climate denial and whatever actions the Democrats can bring to the table.”
Biden has sketched out some of his $2 trillion approach for transforming US transport systems and electrical grids. But there’s no hard and fast plan on how the US will eliminate all carbon emissions from its economy by 2050.
Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist and expert in air pollution and governance at Villanova University, said the overall approach signalled by the White House — focusing on investment first, rather than regulation — was a promising departure from past administrations.
For example, Biden has called for giving Brazil $20b in international aid to protect the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and a sink for fossil fuel sins.
But Senate Democrats are warning that Trump-allied Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro might take the money but keep up destruction of the Amazon.
The UN is trying to consolidate the private financial sector’s carbon-fighting campaign, US envoy John Kerry and a UN finance official said yesterday. The UN-backed Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, involving more than 160 companies with combined assets topping $70t, aims to support efforts to stop fossil fuel emissions by 2050.
China and the US together account for nearly half of the world’s climatewrecking emissions. Climate experts hope Xi will watch what their neighbours pledge and toughen its emissions goals.
Xi’s Government continues building and financing new coal-fired power plants, but Myllyvirta said Xi’s comments at recent domestic forums make clear he is serious about cutting emissions.
Amid US and China disputes over territorial claims, trade practices and human rights, the two countries’ presummit pronouncements were an island of climate co-operation in a sea of complaints and grievances.