On Thursday, President Biden will host the first American-led virtual climate summit since the prior administration withdrew from a modest international agreement to reduce carbon emissions. In a show that the new White House means business, the Washington Post reports that Biden will unveil a pledge to reduce U.S. emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030.
According to the report, the administration will offer “broad strokes” for its ambitious vow to decarbonize, which will involve a transition to green energy and the phasing out of gas-powered vehicles — a measure that is already underway in some Democratic-controlled states. Compared to prior U.S. pledges, the 50 percent mark is even more ambitious than it sounds: It would nearly double the target the Obama administration committed to under the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.
While the summit and the bold new number are designed to show other nations that the U.S. wants to return to a leadership position in the climate emergency, there are reasons to doubt the efficacy of Biden’s reported goal, even if Democrats can protect the greenest provisions in the current infrastructure bill. With a Republican Senate unwilling to consider robust climate policy — and a Democratic caucus unwilling to retire the Senate filibuster — the U.S. would have to shave off 50 percent by executive and state-level action alone. And as the representatives from the three dozen countries meeting on Thursday have not forgotten, a change of parties in the White House could mean nearly half a decade of tepid climate action, to say nothing of a President Trump/Pence/DeSantis/Trump Jr. negating policies to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
The talks on Thursday to convince other nations of the American commitment to a livable planet aren’t the only major diplomatic effort on climate this past week. Last Wednesday, Biden’s climate czar, former Secretary of State John Kerry, traveled to China to convince the Xi administration to adopt rules to bring the world’s largest emitter into compliance with the 2015 Paris goals to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. While Beijing has stated it would reach an emissions peak in 2030 and achieve carbon-neutral status by 2060, it has yet to lay out specific policies to do so. Kerry’s mission wasn’t exactly a success: While the two nations agreed to cooperate to cut carbon output, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said shortly after the meetings that the U.S. “has offered nothing on how it plans to make up for the lost four years” under Donald Trump. Still, the visit may have helped secure the attendance of President Xi Jinping at the virtual summit, which was reported early on Wednesday.
With carbon-dense cryptocurrencies exploding in use and a devastating wildfire season predicted for this fall, the past few days have been a harrowing reminder of the historic challenge to curb greenhouse-gas production: According to the International Energy Agency’s latest forecast, carbon-dioxide emissions in the coming year will negate 80 percent of the decline in emissions from the pandemic.