The impact of President Biden’s new climate goal

Nat Keohane

Editor’s note: Since this blog post was published, President Biden has indeed announced his plan to cut climate emissions in half by 2030.

This year, we celebrate Earth Day during a pivotal week for global climate action: President Biden will host a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate this Thursday and Friday. Here’s what we’re looking for.

How ambitious will the U.S. be?

The centerpiece of the summit will be the announcement of the U.S. nationally determined contribution, a new emissions target required for rejoining the Paris Agreement. A growing chorus of environmental organizations and businesses has called for the U.S. to cut climate pollution at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Such a cut would be on track with President Biden’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050, necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. Early press reports suggest that he will announce a number in that range tomorrow.

An EDF report released in March showed that a cut of at least 50% was both ambitious and credible, based on a growing body of evidence. The test of credibility is whether it’s technically and economically achievable with the right mix of policies.

EDF’s report detailed four separate modeling analyses that identified pathways to cutting emissions by 50%, and a number of subsequent reports — including by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the University of Maryland and others — have made the same case using different models.

The nationally determined contribution is the first crucial test of the Biden administration’s climate ambition. While only a target, an ambitious NDC will provide a beacon for future U.S. climate action.

Reducing methane emissions

Emitted from a range of sources including oil and gas operations, landfills and agriculture, methane accounts for a quarter of the warming the world is already experiencing. Because it degrades more quickly in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, reducing methane is the fastest, most powerful way to slow warming in the coming decades — along with the deep reductions needed in carbon dioxide.

In addition to the new NDC, the Biden administration is expected to announce its plan to ramp up international climate finance to support developing countries in reducing emissions and strengthening resilience. Last week, the administration included $2.5 billion for climate finance in its “skinny budget” request to Congress, nearly half of which would be earmarked for the Green Climate Fund. Even that much would leave the U.S. nearly a billion dollars short of the $3 billion pledge that President Obama made back in 2015, while many other major economies have doubled their pledges in the years since.

Leading again for global impact

Japan, South Korea and Canada — all among the top dozen emitters globally — top the list of countries that the U.S. has been pushing in recent weeks to commit to a cut of 50% or more. Even if they are not ready to take that step by Thursday, a strengthened U.S. NDC will raise pressure on them to act.

This is precisely what the Paris Agreement was designed to do: create a forcing function for countries to set goals, along with a framework for transparent reporting. Since existing NDCs fall well short of meeting the agreement’s objective, more aggressive targets and implementation are needed.

Over the weekend, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, meeting in Shanghai, released a joint communique committing both countries to renewed cooperation on climate change — a welcome turnabout from four years of impasse on the issue. A first indication of whether those pledges translate into concrete actions may come when Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the Summit on Thursday (his participation being one of the fruits of Kerry’s trip to China).

Next moves for the U.S.

The White House has already paved the way for offshore wind and proposed its historic American Jobs Plan, which would include nearly $1 trillion in climate investments.

This week, the White House is expected to release a new executive order designed to protect our financial system from climate change related threats. Dozens of climate-related bills have been introduced this Congress — including several bipartisan bills — demonstrating growing interest and momentum for climate action in the U.S.

The next ten years will be decisive. Much bolder ambition is needed from the U.S., China, other major emitters and the world as a whole. At this week’s Summit, the White House has a chance to show that America is ready to help lead the way.