Climate activists are eagerly awaiting Thursday’s kick-off of the virtual Earth Day Summit hosted by United States President Joe Biden, hoping that a more planet-friendly administration will mark a giant leap forward in US leadership on what many see as the defining challenge of our times.
During the two-day confab involving some 40 nations, the US is expected to announce an aggressive new target for curbing carbon emissions by 2030. World leaders are also expected to keep twisting Brazil’s arm to crack down on deforestation in the Amazon region. And bilateral discussions — if successful — could compel Japan, China, South Korea or Canada to announce new aspirations for meeting goals consistent with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate.
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Since Biden took office three months ago, the policy environment around climate issues has changed drastically, with the new president ratcheting up expectations that the US can help steer other nations towards a low-carbon future.
Activists see this week’s summit as an important catalyst for revitalising climate action ahead of the COP26 gathering planned for Glasgow, Scotland, in November – a pending gathering that could be highlighted when United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses Biden’s summit.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in many parts of the planet and nations still struggling to heal their economies, carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere are rising ever higher.
‘A welcome change’
The Earth Day Summit marks a stark departure from the previous administration of former President Donald Trump, which pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement and blasted its climate goal commitments as antithetical to its “America First” agenda.
But that view is quickly vanishing as US activists and a growing chorus of American business leaders press Washington to step up with serious and sustained action to tackle global warming.
Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the climate and energy programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she expects Biden to make waves with a bold new nationally determined contribution to stem global warming.
Her organisation sent a letter to the president last week asking that he commit to at least a 50 percent reduction in US emissions below 2005 levels over the next decade – a benchmark that would still place Washington well behind London and Brussels.
“The US has a lot of ground to make up after four years of being on the sidelines, and it is a welcome change to have an administration that has promised to be guided by the science,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The nation and the world need the US to step up to its responsibilities,” Cleetus said. “Leading by example, rather than by rhetoric, is what is needed.”
The Biden administration has made big strides with climate steps thus far, Cleetus added, having returned to the Paris Agreement and issued sweeping executive orders on the environment.
But the new administration is still not going far enough, she says.
Biden’s initial budget proposal of $1.2bn for the Green Climate Fund in this budget cycle “falls far short”, in Cleetus’s view. She wants the US to commit to at least $8bn for climate financing over the next four years – funds that are “desperately needed by developing countries”, she said, to help them advance sustainable development goals while making the transition to a low-carbon economy.
In India, for example, that climate challenge is playing out domestically as a battle to resist pressure from richer nations to curb emissions that would hamper local economic growth.
But many in India counter that this narrative is short-sighted, suggesting that accelerating the technological shift is actually better in the long term for Indian competitiveness and resilience — and that this should be the motivating factor for India.
‘Tap back in seamlessly’
For China, there is widespread support across the Communist Party apparatus for President Xi Jinping’s climate goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. The US and China have agreed to cooperate on climate, but with Xi waiting until the last minute to commit to attending Biden’s summit, the jury is out on how far that cooperation will go.
US climate czar John Kerry’s trip to China last week helped put the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters back on the same page, despite a wide range of other flashpoints in their troubled relationship.
China, for its part, is eager to seize opportunities to market its renewable technologies to other countries, while the Biden administration can demonstrate its ability to cooperate with China at least on this one key issue.
China faces a daunting challenge in shuttering some 600 coal-fired power plants over the next decade, which is what a study by analysis firm TransitionZero said Beijing needs to do to meet its targets. Then there’s the environmental problem posed by energy-intensive Bitcoin mining, 75 percent of which is conducted in China.
“To fix the climate crisis, the world must move away from coal as fast as possible, which requires all nations’ participation,” said Ailun Yang, the head of international initiatives for the climate and environment programme at Bloomberg Philanthropies.
She told Al Jazeera that Biden has the advantage of resuming US leadership that was only partially abrogated for the last four years.
“It’s important to remember that the US drove emission reduction progress at home and inspired confidence abroad even without a climate champion in the White House, thanks to the incredible work of cities, states, businesses and other non-federal leaders,” said Yang. “Their actions paved the way for the US to tap back in seamlessly to the international climate fight.”
Yang also described the “all-of-society approach” needed to turn a 50-percent US reduction target into reality by encompassing multiple layers of government and many sectors of society.
She expects Biden’s Earth Day Summit “to demonstrate that the federal government is back at the table” to raise US ambitions and to “push other countries to step up ahead of COP26”.
To that end, the United Kingdom announced on Tuesday its own new target: emissions reductions of 78 percent over 1990 levels by 2035.
While the Glasgow climate conference later in 2021 may end up being delayed again, Biden’s mini-summit with major economies could pave the way for a summer climate gathering in Bonn to finesse specifics on transparency and carbon markets, and address other sensitive topics such as loss and damage stemming from extreme weather.
‘Carries a lot of weight’
With a raft of technical details for officials to discuss, some analysts are sceptical that Kerry’s round-the-world April travels from Bangladesh to the United Arab Emirates will net enough new commitments this week. So the summit could be a celebration of the US being back in the room more than a forum where major leaps truly take place.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the climate and energy programme at Third Way, said President Biden could meet the challenge and overcome a trust deficit by leaning on policy bona fides.
“The Biden administration is coming in with heavy hitters who know the people they’ll be meeting with,” Fitzpatrick told Al Jazeera. “They know the process, and they know how the negotiations work.”
“That we have a strong roster of expertise and seasoned professionals is very helpful. There’s not much of a learning curve,” he added. “A lot of people have name recognition and their presence on behalf of the US government carries a lot of weight.”
Fitzpatrick also contends that the US is — despite the hangover from an “America First” presidency — capable of being a climate friend and ally.
“Everybody knows that Americans like to compete and win, but we can be partners [while] angling to get our share of the pie,” he said.
Pointing to emerging technologies such as clean hydrogen, carbon capture and advanced nuclear energy, Fitzpatrick said that the same products that will thrive in domestic markets will also be important for export elsewhere.
Biden’s signature $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan — unveiled in Pittsburgh last month and still a work in progress — contains a massive amount of spending on environmental goals that could boost US market share in green technologies while also reducing US emissions.
“Joe Biden pitched the American Jobs Plan and used the word ‘climate’ just once in Pittsburgh,” Fitzpatrick added. “But this is the most game-changing policy proposal on climate change that the US has ever seen.”