In his first 100 days, US president Joe Biden has taken laudable steps to address climate change including establishing a ‘whole of government’ approach, rejoining the Paris Agreement and embedding climate experts to take action across the administration.
But now the real challenge looms. In order for the US to affirm its legitimacy on climate in a politically divided landscape at home, Biden needs to simultaneously prioritize domestic policy action, while rebuilding international alliances to show that his administration can deliver on its long-term commitments.
Specifically, the US needs to get three things right during the Leaders’ Summit on Climate that Biden is hosting this week: demonstrate its commitment to federal-level action that will ensure long-term policy change, validate the durability of transatlantic relationships while expanding partnerships and deftly manage cooperation-competition dynamics with China.
The global summit
The summit, instigated by the Biden administration to indicate its position of climate leadership, is a crucial moment in the run up to the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP 26) of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change this year, jointly hosted by the UK and Italy.
In a report issued by the United Nations, the current targets by major emitters were revealed to be insufficient to limiting global temperature rise by 2°C, let alone the ambition of 1.5°C. The presidents of COP 26 will therefore be hoping that a positive outcome from Biden’s summit will encourage countries to increase the ambition of their climate pledges ahead of the conference in November.
However, the US government has consistently faced barriers in substantially reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions. Even with a sweeping draft executive order provisionally titled ‘Climate-Related Financial Risks’ in the works and the re-introduction of the Climate Risk Disclosure Act, Biden faces a steep climb.
While former US president Donald Trump clearly exposed the vulnerabilities of walking back on climate commitments, limited climate action long preceded the Trump administration. The US declined to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 and has not secured a substantial emissions reduction policy since the failure to pass a price on carbon in 2010.
One of the reasons for this is that dependency on fossil fuels is deeply embedded in both the American economy and society. The US has the second largest total country level greenhouse gas emissions behind China as well as the second highest motor vehicles per capita in the world and some of the highest CO₂ emissions per capita.
These issues pose immediate challenges for discussions in the run up to the summit as other countries remain sceptical of the US’s return to climate leadership. Biden has invited 40 world leaders to participate in the summit, essentially reconvening the US-led Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which consists of the 17 countries responsible for 80 per cent of global GDP and greenhouse gas emissions.
Biden has also invited the heads of countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, those that have introduced new ways to achieve a net-zero economy and those that have shown strong leadership on climate action.
Pressure at home and abroad
But the US president faces extraordinary pressure at home and abroad to chart a new course for climate action. In 2015, the US announced a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) prior to COP 21 in Paris to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. But, since then, Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis that tracks government climate action against the Paris Agreement aims, has rated American climate progress as ‘critically insufficient’.
On the first day of the summit, Biden announced the United States’ new 2030 NDC, setting out a detailed plan for domestic mitigation measures: 50-52 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas below 2005 levels by 2030. Other countries participating in the summit, such as Japan, Canada, and Brazil, have also strengthened their reductions targets.
But overcoming national roadblocks to climate policy, including conservative opposition and rifts in progressive views, will be critical to achieve this reduction goal. Although a deeply partisan Congress has approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 recovery package, the test will be the Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, dubbed the ‘infrastructure bill’, likely to be put forward to a Congressional vote in July.
The plan’s core components – transportation, buildings and utilities and jobs and innovation – account for overdue investments in traditional infrastructure including roads, bridges, railways and airports as well as in electric vehicles, the electric grid and water systems.
In addition, the bill proposes significant investments in the American manufacturing of green technology, combining a job creation plan and workforce transition from fossil fuel industries with climate-relevant tech for batteries, solar and wind. If the bill passes more or less intact, it could establish trust in US climate leadership again and send a strong signal to other nations that the US is a serious contender to compete globally in green tech.
Not just the usual suspects
As climate change continues to elevate to a top-tier foreign policy issue in the US and around the world, its intersection with a range of policy areas, including technology, trade and security, is becoming more apparent. For the US to deliver on its wider commitments, it needs to expand the range of its partnerships beyond the usual suspects in Europe. Inviting major emitters and developing countries to the table for the summit signals a change in tactics for the US toward fostering a more collaborative approach and recognition of the urgency for collective action.
Two key areas – innovation in green technology and finance as well as sustainable trade policy – are urgently needed for the US to strengthen its position in climate diplomacy with both developed and developing countries. Importantly, achieving dramatic carbon reductions for fast-growing developing country emitters such as India will require further drops in prices and the ability of tech to work across different geographic contexts.
Innovation in green technology and finance, therefore, along with improved disclosure and accountability mechanisms, will offer pathways for governments to achieve progress in tandem. While concerns around intellectual property and competitive advantage may drive a ‘winner takes all’ mindset, a race to the top may be better accomplished through government coordination and securing commercial partnerships.
Furthermore, trade plays a central role in unlocking investment and moving green goods and services around the world to make them more accessible. In light of this, the EU has proposed a carbon border adjustment mechanism – a cornerstone of the European Green Deal – to help address ‘carbon leakage’ where companies relocate production to countries with less strict emissions standards. The UK pledged to raise this issue during its presidency of the G7 this year and the US should take seriously this effort to put a global price on carbon emissions.
Biden must also work closely with partners to advance international commitments – especially those related to the Belt and Road Initiative from China. But, rather than a binary compete-or-cooperate dynamic with China, which accounts for over a quarter of global emissions, climate goals should feature prominently on the list of shared US and Chinese priorities.
The visit of the US climate envoy, John Kerry, to China may indicate that the US seeks to advance climate diplomacy, while de-escalating tensions resulting from other foreign policy areas by focusing on advancing complementary goals, such as technical cooperation and aid for vulnerable countries.
By adopting a multidimensional climate policy that advances areas of alignment, the US may be able to expand space for advancing climate goals without making concessions. Indeed, the joint US-China statement on climate resulting from Kerry’s visit with his peer envoy from China, Xie Zhenhua, is the first since the Obama era. The statement indicates mutual intention to strengthen cooperation to implement the Paris Agreement and promote successful international meetings – including COP26. During the summit, China has indicated that it would accelerate its pace of decarbonization and phase down coal consumption from 2026 to 2030.
To establish US credibility on climate change, the Biden administration should build on its early momentum to pass substantial federal policy, expand its partnerships by advancing green innovation and trade and tactfully align its interests with China. Fortunes for climate action may change yet again in 2022 following the US midterm elections. To assuage fears of a fickle America, Biden must ensure that allies can rely on the US for robust policy provisions and sound relationships to deliver on national and international climate ambitions.
This article is drafted under a joint Chatham House-RUSI project which explores transatlantic approaches and responses to China across four sectors and is financially supported by the Carnegie Foundation.