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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Biden’s climate summit shows America can still play a leadership role in world affairs

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Going into Thursday’s meeting, there was some concern that leaders like China’s Xi Jinping or Russia’s Vladimir Putin might use their time on the virtual world stage to highjack the conference. However, neither of their speeches wandered far off topic. Xi largely repeated existing and vague pledges that China would “strive” to lower CO2 levels before 2030, and might, possibly, “phase down” coal consumption some time after 2025. Mostly Xi talked up the nation’s technological accomplishments while downplaying the fact that China is now responsible for just under a third of global emissions.

Putin spoke for more global collaboration on technology to fight greenhouse gases, and was one of several leaders (Australian President Scott Morrison being another) who talked about the need for carbon capture technology as well as removing carbon from the air. In kicking off the second day of talks, Biden actually seized on Putin’s statement to provide a rare non-head-butting moment between the U.S. and Russia. Biden said he was “very heartened” and expressed support for more international collaboration on removing existing CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Other nations didn’t come to the summit completely empty-handed. South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised to halt public funding for coal plants, but backed away from actually setting new goals for emissions. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that country’s greenhouses gases would peak in 2025, which is 10 years earlier than previous targets. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, but to get that target he reached back to 1990, when Britain was consuming more than twice as much coal per year as it does today, rather than starting from a more recent date. And of course, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro elaborated on his scheme to stop cutting down the Amazon forest … if someone will cough up the money.

If the many European Union leaders came without many new commitments to showcase, that’s because the EU just reached a major agreement hours before Biden’s summit began. As the BBC reports, a new law between member states and the EU Parliament requires a reduction of at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. That 1990 base level, as with the U.K., means that it sets the starting point at a time when countries like Germany were burning a lot more coal. However, there is a legitimate reason for that date: 1990 was the baseline year set in the original Kyoto Protocol. For countries that have been reliably participating in each round of climate agreements, it makes sense to hold to that baseline. The 2005 year used by President Biden in making his announcement about U.S. levels comes from the baseline year of the Paris Agreement, and it was also a year in which the U.S. had much higher levels of coal consumption than today.

Another reason that not every nation was ready to come to Biden’s summit with new commitments is that the next round of global climate negotiations is coming up later this year. What was originally supposed to be the Glasgow 2020 conference was delayed until November 2021 because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. And this is one time when the novel coronavirus did America, and the world, a favor. Donald Trump, after pulling out of the Paris Agreement, was not intending to attend the Glasgow conference. Thanks to the delay, it’s certain that the U.S. will be represented and engaged.

On the second day of Biden’s summit, discussion has focused not on limits required to meet climate change targets, but on the economic opportunities—and challenges—of converting the nation to clean power. That included a morning appearance by new right-wing bogeyman Bill Gates, who called for massive public and private investment in technology to fight climate change. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm followed by repeating language that Biden has used before, calling the battle against climate change “our generation’s moonshot.” In addition to reiterating the commitments Biden made on Thursday, Granholm also discussed efforts to drastically reduce the cost of solar panels as well as batteries. 

And Friday wasn’t without some surprising commitments. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up to say that nation would end the use of coal by 2025 “barring unforeseen circumstances.”

Overall, Biden’s conference hasn’t yet gathered the commitments that would put the world firmly on a path to holding down climate change, but that hasn’t really been the purpose. When it comes to showing that the U.S. is once again serious about the environment, and to act as a leader capable of making serious commitments with other nations, it’s been a success.

On to Glasgow.

Thursday coverage

Day two coverage

Xiye Bastida


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