Biden climate summit: Are ambitious carbon cuts even enough?
While many climate policy experts are pleased with the results of the Earth Day leaders summit, some activists are demanding more systemic change.
As day two of the climate summit hosted by United States President Joe Biden got under way, a question raised by special envoy John Kerry about carbon-reduction pledges by the nations gathered was still looming large.
“Is it enough?” the veteran US negotiator had asked rhetorically at a White House press conference on the summit’s opening day on Thursday.
“No,” Kerry himself answered matter-of-factly. “But it’s the best we can do today and prove we can begin to move [forward].”
Kerry explained afterwards that 20 of the biggest countries at the summit represent 81 percent of global emissions, and that their commitments reflected “environmental justice, equity and fairness”.
Kerry’s comments were seen as a nod to climate activists — particularly the youth — who have called for an even more aggressive shift to stem the cataclysmic effects of global warming.
“We’re going to make our economies hum,” he added optimistically, “to reach out for the better future that we want to leave future generations”.
On Friday, leaders from the public and private sectors came together on the second and final day of the Biden summit to see where innovation can make a decisive difference.
It’s the best we can do today.
But climate justice activists say that the buck stops with governments that can enforceably cut back on fossil fuels, as observers see the run-up to the next United Nations climate conference — COP26, to be held in November in Glasgow, Scotland — as the last best chance to avert disastrous droughts, floods, fires and heatwaves.
Though the US decision to slash emissions by 50 percent by 2030 — and double climate finance contributions by 2024 — may be politically feasible, there is some doubt about whether those and other newly proclaimed measures go far enough to meaningfully tackle the climate crisis.
“There is polite but obvious frustration by many who have contributed so little to the crisis but have to deal with so many of the consequences,” said Kerry on Friday.
The hottest deserts to the coldest tundra
US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said that the key is for clean energy to reach people from the hottest deserts to the coldest tundra.
“When the winds of change blow, some build walls, others build windmills,” she said.
Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Breakthrough Energy, an umbrella group of sustainable investment organisations, said on Friday at the summit that “young people are demanding action and rightly so.”
“Governments are meeting those demands with ambitious commitments,” he added. “But just using today’s technology won’t allow us to meet those ambitious goals.”
When the winds of change blow, some build walls, others build windmills.
The COP26 Coalition, an alliance of civil society groups from Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, is laying the groundwork to pressure negotiators in advance of November. Coalition members are impatient for new technology that might not be able — ever — to provide a climate panacea.
“Global summits dominated by rich countries and corporations — whether it’s the Biden summit or the Group of Seven (G7) in June — will not put people before profit or offer real change,” said the coalition in a statement released before a virtual press conference on Thursday.
During the press conference, activists from around the globe described the lack of concrete action by officials to remedy the wretched reality facing planet Earth. Their bottom line is that the US and other nations are making big leaps, but the progress is not sufficient — particularly with financing for poor countries to deal with the causes and effects of climate change.
“You can refine your emissions inventories as you please, but your greenhouse gases are still in the atmosphere and the people continue to be impacted,” said Maria Reyes, an activist with Fridays for Future Mexico. “You will claim to be ambitious and magnificent, but we know that in reality, the emperor has no clothes.”
Rhoda Boateng, a labour activist with the International Trade Union Confederation Africa, said, “Net zero [greenhouse gas emissions] is meaningless without the meaningful participation of the most vulnerable in the design and implementation of transition plans.”
We know that in reality, the emperor has no clothes.
Community activist Bryce Goodall resides in the Scottish town of Cowdenbeath, where the working-class community has faced serious pollution and disruption from the nearby Mossmorran gas plants. “We don’t want [employees] to lose their jobs. We want them to switch to clean and renewable technologies,” said Goodall.
Altogether, the activists say they do not trust well-heeled energy interests — and their supporters in the highest-emitting nations — to turn the climate emergency tide in favour of ordinary people across the world.
‘The bar is not the Trump administration’
On Friday, President Biden said, “This summit is the start of a road that will take us to Glasgow.”
“Today’s final session is not about the threat that climate change poses, it’s about the opportunity that climate change provides,” he added.
“It’s nice to have an administration serious about addressing the problem,” said Brandon Wu, Washington-based director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA. “But the bar is not the [former US President Donald] Trump administration. The bar is, what do we actually need to do to solve the climate crisis?”
Wu told Al Jazeera that his organisation, an equity and sustainability non-profit, is most concerned with the science of keeping the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The bar is, what do we actually need to do to solve the climate crisis?
A study published in March by Climate Action Tracker said that the US would need to slice emissions around 60 percent in this decade to be consistent with that pathway.
But Wu said that moral considerations — adjusting for wealth and inequality in determining who pays for saving the climate – are critical.
“If we do our ‘fair share’, then what Biden released [on Thursday] is inadequate,” he added, referring to the 70-percent target that the US Climate Action Network estimated would be needed to fulfil US historical responsibility and leverage the nation’s financial capacity.
A model by ActionAid USA suggested that the US public sector should contribute $800bn over the next decade as a “good-faith effort” for the massive amount of climate financing needed to cover least-developed states’ mitigation and adaptation, in addition to loss and damage.
“We’re finally in a place where people understand the scale of this challenge, and people are saying it’s important to take the first step,” said Wu. “And it’s only a first step.”
Big developing economies like Indonesia and South Africa echoed that point at the summit, saying they are willing and able to do more — if the climate funds are made available. And that is why the most developed nations will need to roll out their purse strings ahead of COP26, activists say.
‘Tinkering around the edges’
Beyond the money trail, coal is still a serious sticking point. China and Japan remain the two prominent governmental supporters of overseas coal financing, after South Korea terminated its backing for the carbon-intensive fuel.
“[Chinese President] Xi’s speech at the Leaders Climate Summit brought an eventual farewell to coal closer,” said Li Shuo, a senior climate officer at Greenpeace. “The domestic conditions for faster emission cuts are there. It’s in China’s interest to announce further plans before COP26.”
Fixing the climate crisis requires more than simply cutting carbon.
The consensus from many climate activists is that China showed a cooperative attitude by being present at this week’s summit, though Beijing did not produce more specifics on its 2060 net-zero plans. Activists also suggest that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered few tangible points, but that a US-India clean energy partnership has huge potential.
Perception about which countries can “do more” depends on how one calculates emissions reductions, according to a Rhodium Group analysis.
Because US emissions peaked around 2005, measuring from levels that year through 2030 appears to show a relatively large cutback. For the European Union and UK, where emissions peaked around 1990, measuring from then through 2030 appears to be a relatively bigger drop.
Meanwhile, leaders from China and India make the argument that, as developing nations, they should be allowed to hit peak emissions in 2030 or later, before making steep reductions that could constrain their economic growth.
Looking at the biggest emitters, the US has by far the highest per capita emissions — almost 18 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually — followed by China, the EU and India. Equity proponents say this order speaks for itself in terms of which nations are obliged to make the biggest economic and sustainability adjustments for the sake of us all.
“Billions around the world face a daily struggle to survive in the face of a worsening climate crisis, a never-ending crisis of inequality and a global health pandemic,” said Asad Rehman, executive director of UK-based anti-poverty group War on Want.
“Tinkering around the edges of a broken system,” he added, offers little hope, and “Fixing the climate crisis requires more than simply cutting carbon.”