United States president Joe Biden is hosting a virtual climate change summit on April 22 (Earth Day) and 23 ahead of major UN climate talks later this year. While more than forty leaders are expected to attend, the biggest focus will be on Biden himself and the new climate pledge (NDC) the US government is expected to announce at the summit.
The four-year presidency of Donald Trump witnessed the US climate action fall way behind what was expected. Biden now hopes to show the rest of the world that the country is once again ready to lead in the fight against climate change. And as the world’s second greenhouse gas emitter behind China, the world needs the US on board.
The summit will focus on the economic advantages of climate action: elevating the economic benefits of climate action, including job creation, as well as the importance of mobilizing public and private finance, addressing the need for adaptation and resilience to climate impacts, incorporating nature-based solutions and deploying transformational technologies. It’s a lot to swallow, but the stakes have never been higher.
Pete Ogden, of the UN foundation and a former senior director on climate under the administration of former president Barack Obama, described the summit as “the most anticipated global climate moment since the Paris Agreement” was adopted in 2015.
“This summit is not an end-point, but it is a very important opportunity for re-alignment [with the Paris goals] and to make some real progress. The US and their [2030 climate plan] being a part of that,” he told reporters last week.
What’s the state of the fight against climate change?
Countries agreed under the Paris Agreement to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while also aiming at 1.5º if possible — a half degree which would make a huge difference for the environment. This means global emissions will have to reach a peak as soon as possible.
But we are still falling short of climate action; very short. Since 2015 global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to grow, with a billion tons of CO2 added to annual figures between 2015 and 2018, according to the Global Carbon Project. This increase is mainly dominated by emerging economies such as China and India.
Countries would have to collectively increase their climate action threefold to be in line with the 2ºC goal of the Paris Agreement, UN estimates. Meanwhile, to be in line with the 1.5ºC target, they would have to do so fivefold. The world is now heading to global warming of about 3ºC based on the current climate pledges.
As emissions rise, so does the global temperature. Last year’s temperature reached a 1.2ºC increase above pre-industrial levels, with a 20% chance of exceeding 1.5°C by 2024. Breaking that limit would bring trigger all sorts of severe consequences on the planet such as further coral bleaching, heat waves, floods, and sea-level rise.
How can the summit help?
The summit is supposed to encourage countries to make stronger commitments—known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—under the Paris Agreement and “keep that 1.5-degree goal within reach,” according to a White House statement. Countries have to review their NDCs every five years, increasing their ambition.
This update was supposed to happen in 2020, with leaders expected to announce more ambitious targets during an annual climate conference (COP26) in the United Kingdom. But the COP26 was pushed back to November 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with many countries pending to update their NDCs – including the US.
Biden committed to announce a new emissions-reduction target at the summit. For climate experts, his administration should commit to cut emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. Analysis shows this target can be achieved cost effectively with existing technologies, providing a major boost in jobs and innovation across a range of sectors
“Clearly the science demands at least 50%” in reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, Jake Schmidt, a climate expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group, told AP. The 50% target “is ambitious, but it is achievable” and it’s a good climate message. “People know what 50% means — it’s half,” he added.
Over 1,000 scientists called Biden to cut emissions in half by 2050, claiming the goal is scientifically feasible and necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Meanwhile, a group of major businesses with more than $1.4 trillion in combined annual revenue rallied behind an ambitious new climate pledge of the US under Biden.
Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, said in a press conference: “Climate leadership means President Biden aggressively reining in fossil fuel corporations, which he has not yet done. To be regarded as a climate leader, Biden has to phase out fossil fuels at home and abroad, and support other governments to follow suit.”
Who is coming to the summit?
Biden has invited the leaders of the world’s highest-emitting countries, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also invited the leaders of some countries that strongly affected by the effects of climate change, such as Bangladesh, Jamaica, and Kenya.
What have top emitters pledged so far?
- China: President Xi Jinping announced last year that China is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060. This means that the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere equals or exceeds that which is emitted. The country also pledged to reach peak emissions before 2030 but it hasn’t presented yet its updated NDC
- United States: The US left the Paris Agreement under the Trump administration but rejoined earlier this year. It previously committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% percent from its 2005 level by 2025. A new NDC that doubles that amount is now expected this week, as well as a concrete carbon neutrality objective by 2050.
- European Union: The third emitter after China and the US, the European bloc already submitted its updated NDCs, which sets a goal of cutting emissions by 55% of its 1990 level by 2030, higher than its original target of 40%. It’s a progress, climate experts agree the goal is still incompatible with the Paris Agreement 1.5ºC goal by the end of the century.
- India: The fourth-largest emitter, India pledged in its first NDC to reduce its emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP), a ratio known as emissions intensity, by 33 to 35% from its 2005 level. It also committed to renewables accounting for 40% of its energy matrix by 2040. The government hasn’t presented an updated NDC yet.