United States: Biden's Push to Restore US Climate Credibility

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US President Joe Biden has spent his first two months in office laying the groundwork at home to show the US is serious about returning to the table when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. The US in February formally rejoined the 2015 Paris climate agreement and Biden last week rolled out his $2 trillion-plus plan for greening and updating US infrastructure, which included hundreds of billions of dollars toward clean energy investments (EC Apr.2'21). Now, in the run-up to a US-led virtual climate summit later this month, the Biden administration is elevating its climate agenda in the international sphere. As other countries are preparing to update their greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets ahead of the November UN COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, White House climate envoy John Kerry embarked on a climate diplomacy tour this week, visiting the United Arab Emirates, India and Bangladesh (EC Feb.12'21). The US State Department is framing the junket as “consultations on increasing climate ambition” ahead of the planned Apr. 22-23 climate summit, with green financing and committing to a 2030 time frame for reducing emissions emerging as major threads. Washington is certainly trying to make up for lost time. The US' climate leadership role was tarnished under former President Donald Trump, who took the US out of the Paris accord in 2017 and repealed a swath of federal climate policies across government (EC Jun.2'17). Biden is taking high-profile steps to repair the policy damage, but climate advocates say how effectively Biden can restore the US’ credibility in the international space is still an open question. Among the most glaring problems is Trump’s tenure having exposed how dependent US climate policy is on domestic politics -- and how easily federal actions can be undone with the stroke of a pen. “It may be some time before the international community can accept the US leadership” on climate, says Simon Nicholson, director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment at the American University's School of International Service. This could be a hurdle as Biden officials look to persuade others to step up their emissions reduction pledges. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said this week that during the April climate summit, the US will discuss its own emissions targets on the “big, national stage with the bully pulpit ... where we are, where we're going from here.” Ahead of that, Kerry this week participated in a Mideast and North Africa dialogue on climate change in Abu Dhabi -- committing with UAE officials to collaboration on coordinating financing for low-carbon solutions, including on renewables and hydrogen. And at an International Monetary Fund (IMF) seminar in New Delhi Wednesday, Kerry reportedly spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about mobilizing “concessionary finance” for alternative fuels. While in India, Kerry spoke too with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, reportedly on climate (related). Kerry’s tour is slated to conclude Friday in Bangladesh, where a similar focus is expected on US support for climate adaptation and risk reduction. Biden has taken pains to assemble a team of experienced climate veterans, including Kerry, who as secretary of state in 2015 signed the Paris Agreement for the US. And US officials have been making the case for other countries to begin updating their climate plans with an eye toward 2030 targets, as some, including the EU, have already moved to do. Kerry told the IMF event Wednesday, referencing China as accounting for 30% of global emissions, “if we don’t see a reduction between 2020 and 2030 we lose the capacity to hold onto 1.5 degrees. We lose the capacity to hit net zero ... so we have to all of us do this at the same time.” Devil in the Detail Washington observers say all eyes will be on the Biden administration’s forthcoming nationally determined contribution (NDC) as an important gauge. Think tanks and green groups have been nudging the administration toward an NDC that hits at least 50% reductions below 2005 emissions levels by 2030, and some are urging a specific methane reduction target. But perhaps even more significant is how the administration plans on implementing the pledge, given the difficulty in shunting any major climate or energy legislation through the US Congress. An aggressive NDC is anticipated, but “where the rubber meets the road” will be whether there is a clear pathway for implementing the targets, Nicholson notes. For example, the Biden administration is eyeing a clean electricity standard among its core climate priorities. But should a legislative pathway fail given the slim Democratic majority in Congress, that leaves only regulatory options that can easily be reversed by a future White House. For example, the former Barack Obama administration pledged to cut emissions by 26%-28% from 2005 levels by 2025, but Trump scrapped much of the GHG regulations that underpinned those numbers, most notably the Clean Power Plan. “The solidity of the underlying policy is important to the credibility of the headline figure,” says Kaveh Guilanpour, vice president with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. To that end, sources suggest the Biden administration should be looking to forge consensus with the business community on its climate plans. There are already signs of this: White House domestic climate czar Gina McCarthy last month met with US Chamber of Commerce officials to discuss the NDC process. And Kerry, speaking during the IMF event, seemed to make the case for action in the private sector, saying there is opportunity in "the creation of new jobs in the investments that need to be made in order to deal with the crisis.” Bridget DiCosmo and Emily Meredith, Washington Compass Points • SIGNIFICANCE: The US is far from the only country struggling with crafting a credible climate plan ahead of COP26, but Trump’s backpedaling on climate and Biden's leadership ambitions put US plans under a brighter spotlight. • CONNECTION: On climate, US-China cooperation despite wider tensions between the two is key (EC Mar.12'21). Both China and Russia have been invited to the US-led April climate summit. • NEXT: The Biden administration is expected to outline its new NDC before this month's climate summit.

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