Biden Wants the U.S. to Lead on Climate Action, But the World Needs Proof
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden aims to prove to the world this week that the U.S. has rejoined the international fight against climate change by vowing cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are both ambitious and achievable.
Whether those cuts will be either ambitious enough to reassure skeptical allies or achievable given myriad domestic obstacles is far from a sure thing.
The Biden administration is expected to unveil the country’s new pledge under the Paris climate agreement, known as a nationally determined contribution, before the international climate summit set to begin this Thursday. He’ll have to overcome the major trust deficit run up by former President Donald Trump, who withdrew from the Paris agreement and dismantled domestic policies key to driving the country’s promised emissions cuts. The past four years revealed how tenuous pledges of U.S government action can be.
“My biggest concern is execution,” said Dan Lashof, U.S. director of the World Resources Institute. “They actually have to get stuff built. The have to get money out the door. They have to get money spent well.”
The White House is seriously considering a pledge to slash emissions 50% by 2030 relative to 2005 levels. To achieve that target, the administration will rely on a foundation of domestic climate programs and policies, including investments in renewable power and electric vehicles, as well as regulations throttling greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, oil wells, and automobiles. While those limits were relaxed under Trump, the Biden administration is set to revive more stringent replacements.
The White House will frame its new pledge as a geopolitical necessity. In prepared remarks ahead of the summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to say that if the U.S. doesn’t catch up to China on climate change, it will “miss the chance to shape the world’s climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values, and we’ll lose out on countless jobs for the American people.” Over the weekend, the two superpowers issued a statement agreeing to work together to implement the goals of the Paris agreement.
Environmental groups have armed the administration with blueprints for reaching the U.S. carbon-cutting goal through federal policies, new laws, and local government action. Each offers a different road map, giving the Biden administration flexibility to take some routes and forgo others. But any of the given options will demand serious, sustained, dramatic action of the sort the country has been unable to muster for decades past.
The bulk of potential U.S. emissions reductions in the near term come from the power sector, according to modeling by the Environmental Defense Fund and other groups. That makes closing coal plants, boosting energy efficiency and adding renewables critical to meeting the U.S. target and cleaning up electricity generation that is the nation’s second-highest source of greenhouse gases. Greening the power sector is also key to unlocking other reductions as buildings and vehicles shift to electricity for heating and power.
Oil and gas companies will need to keep a better lid on methane that escapes from wells and processing equipment. Cement makers and ethanol producers will need to employ technology to capture carbon dioxide at their factories. And the U.S. will need to move urgently to stifle emissions from the power sector, with some environmentalists targeting an 80% cut from 2005 levels by 2030.
“A lot of things have to go right,” Lashof said. “It really is going to require a very focused effort to get this done.”
Federal regulations can compel many of the changes, but it will take years for agencies to propose and codify new requirements under a federal rulemaking process that is slow-moving by design. Even then, legal challenges can suspend new mandates, just as a U.S. Supreme Court stay temporarily halted enforcement of former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan in 2016.
Biden will also need help from Congress to make investments in clean energy and write new laws that can accelerate the shift away from carbon. The president has already asked lawmakers to pass a $2.25 trillion infrastructure package with tax credits for renewable power, spending on electric vehicle chargers and a mandate for utilities to use clean energy. If enacted, those initiatives would be more durable than agency-written regulations that can be undone by future presidents, but Biden needs to overcome Republican resistance and lean on razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress to get the package passed.
Even if the U.S. succeeds in meeting its targets, some scientists and activists say a 50% emissions cut won’t be enough to keep global warming in check. Some environmental groups argue that the U.S. should be vowing far deeper cuts, especially given its role as the largest historic contributor to atmospheric greenhouse gases.
The expected new pledge is far more ambitious than the previous U.S. commitment under Obama to pare emissions by as much as 28% by 2025. And it’s in keeping with the trajectory outlined in a 2018 United Nations report on keeping global warming below below 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But it’s also weaker than emissions cuts proffered by other countries. The European Union has pledged a 55% reduction from 1990 emissions levels by 2030, while the U.K. is set to lay out a 78% reduction by 2035. A 50% cut from 2005 emissions would amount to just a 40% cut for the U.S. when recalibrated to the same 1990 baseline.
“The reduction for the U.S. that could be considered fair isn’t necessarily the same as the average global reduction,” said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute. That’s especially true, Kartha said, because other developing countries are still increasing their energy consumption to meet fairly basic needs, in contrast to the U.S., where growing energy demand is discretionary.
Although the U.S. has in the past taken pride in being a leader fighting climate change, “it’s a very inward-looking conception,” said Karen Orenstein, director of climate and energy at Friends of the Earth U.S. “I don’t think we could say that the U.S. has ever been a leader on climate. Outside of this country, I don’t think anybody thinks that way.”
Friends of the Earth argues that the U.S. can take a true leadership role by slashing emissions at least 70% from 2005 levels by 2030, plus spending hundreds of billions of dollars on climate finance to drive emissions cuts in other developing countries.
The U.S. can overcome its credibility gap, said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Energy Program. But it won’t happen at this week’s summit, or even possibly at the international climate talks planned for November in Glasgow.
“It really is on our country to show that when we make pledges we will follow through on them,” Doniger said. “The ultimate question will be whether you can get these policies to stick over the long term, not to yo-yo around.”
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