Biden’s climate initiative was a success

By Carlton Joseph

Carlton Joseph

United  States President Joe Biden’s summit on climate change ended on Friday with the United States (promising to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and help other countries do the same.  But Manish Bapna of World Resources Institute (WRI) expressed the view that the US promise of $5.7 billion in climate finance for developing countries was insufficient and did not meet the needs  stated  by leaders of vulnerable countries.

Developing countries reiterated that they were being asked to make sacrifices even though they had contributed little to the problem, and that they needed money to cope.  Antigua’ and Barbuda’s  Prime Minister Gaston Brown reminded the  meeting that the 44 members of the Alliance of Small Island States were the least contributors to greenhouse gas emissions but confront the greatest threats of climate change. 

From my perspective, the Biden’s climate initiative was a success.  The summit assembled world leaders representing 82 per cent of world’s carbon emissions, 73 per cent of the world population and 86 per cent of world economic output to commit to bold climate action.   It essentially reinstated the US as a global leader, a position it had abandoned, and by making aggressive commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, announced to the world that “America is Back,” and she is ready to do big things. 

The summit also revealed the limits of America’s influence, and the loss of leadership it experienced over the last four years.  More important, it revealed the new confidence of China’s leaders.  Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that Chinese cooperation would depend on how the United States responded to Beijing’s policies regarding Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang Province. 

Canada’s Prime Minister  Justin Trudeau, announced that Canada will enhance its emissions reduction target under the Paris Agreement (PCA) by 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels, by 2030.  He also emphasized the importance of working with other global leaders to tackle climate change, create growth, and improve the well-being of all people.

 Australia, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Russia made no new pledges to cut down on the use of oil, gas or coal.  Russian President Vladimir Putin and India’s PM Narendra Modi both promised climate action but offered few details. Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized China’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2060, and to draw down coal use after 2025. This action will likely put China on the path to reach net zero by 2050.

Interestingly, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro abandoned mimicking Trump’s anti-environmentalism, and openly embraced Biden’s goal by announcing Brazil’s intention to reach net zero emissions by 2050.   Also, he promised to end illegal deforestation by 2030, but wants the international community to pledge billions of dollars to pay for the conservation program.   Clearly,  Bolsonaro has undermined Indigenous rights, gutted Brazil’s environmental protection system, and championed the destruction of the rainforest.  He cannot be trusted with billions; the people need to remove him from office. 

Regardless of  its  lack of concreteness, it is important to understand that this meeting brought the world’s largest economies: -The United States, China, Japan, The European Union (EU), United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, India, Russia and Korea –  to agree on a shift of the global energy system from fossil fuels to zero-carbon sources.  The meeting also acknowledged that the green economy would produce more jobs than will be lost in the declining fossil fuel economy.  

Biden’s strategic move to restore America’s position as leader of the world was bold and ambitious., especially since he can’t control whether the US Congress will pass his $2.5 trillion infrastructure bill, or whether the Supreme Court will let him regulate carbon pollution.  Current Republican proposals reflect continued opposition to the PCA and the belief that fossil fuels should remain the centerpiece of American’s energy vision.  Does the Biden administration have a plan to work around Congress?  I think he does, since he did not mention Congress in the discussions.

Republicans’ recalcitrance is a reminder to the global community that they should be wary of America’s climate commitments.  The world forged ahead on a climate agenda when the US opted out. They realize that they had to make decisions in their best interest and are now comfortable with their decisions.  In addition, US absence has caused its financial climate contribution to lag behind many other rich countries, and does not meet the needs of poorer countries.

Currently China leads the world with 895 gigawatts of installed renewable energy, the US is second with 292 gigawatts and Brazil is third with 150 gigawatts.   Many countries are putting economic growth first after a year of stagnation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and Global Energy Monitor reports that China provinces stimulated their post pandemic by installing 38 gigawatts of coal fired power plants and that air pollution levels are climbing again.

The Biden administration promised $1.2 billion for the Green Climate Fund to help poor countries address climate change, and announced a joint effort with India to mobilize finance and speed energy deployment to assist India in deploying large amounts of renewable energy capacity by 2030.  

Meanwhile, the EU is planning to roll out a plan to tax carbon intensive imports and discourage its industries from seeking less regulated environs.  Xi dislikes the idea but word is that Canada, Japan, the U.K. and others might join the EU in a “carbon club”.   Reports claim that the U.S. is considering such a scheme, but Kerry has urged the EU “to put its plan on ice.”

These large economies must realize that rapid decarbonization is now feasible at low cost because of the remarkable technological advances in solar and wind power, battery storage, electric vehicles and more.  Focusing on imposing a carbon tax, which raises the price of energy for consumers and disproportionately affects poor people is counterproductive.  Investing in the green economy will create jobs and raise the standard of living for everyone.

The US Congress must realize that investment in the green economy is better for the US economy, because the green (low-carbon) economy will produce a lot more jobs than fossil fuels. Continuing the $20.5 billion annual subsidy to this industry to encourage domestic energy production and incentivize new domestic energy sources is uneconomical and unnecessary.  Importantly, subsidizing an industry with such large negative environmental impacts is difficult to justify.

Additionally, numerous clean and renewable alternatives exist, which have become increasingly price-competitive with traditional fossil fuels; the circumstances, relevant at the time these subsidies were implemented, no longer exist.

In his opening remarks at the summit President Biden said: “When people talk about climate, I think jobs, within our climate response lies an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity ready to be fired up.” 

I totally agree with his statement.  Biden’s main message was that government can drive innovation and shape the direction of markets by investing in research and development.  The US has done this before, helping to finance the internet, fracking, solar, LED lighting and lithium-ion batteries and many other industries.

The 2017 Carbon Majors report attributed 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse emissions over the previous two decades to 100 fossil fuel producers.  This is clearly unacceptable; my hope is that republican lawmakers realize that climate denial and opposition politics is not in America’s economic or geopolitical interests.  The time to act is now.


( Trinidad-born Carlton Joseph who lives in Washington DC, is a close observer of political developments in the United States.)