Biden Climate Summit: How far will the US as the world’s biggest polluter go towards cleaning up the climate?

The US - the world’s biggest polluter - urgently needs to tackle its emissions

By Elspeth Findlay

US President Biden is this week hosting 40 international leaders for a climate summit, due to take place on 22-23 April, to coincide with World Earth Day. This is an attempt by the US to regain international leadership on climate change ahead of the major UN Climate Change talks due to take place in November this year and following four disastrous years under Donald Trump which saw the US intervening to sabotage global efforts to tackle climate change.

Under the Paris Agreement, which the US has just re-joined, all countries must submit by the time of November’s UN Summit updated national commitments to reduce their emissions by 2030 (known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs).

This reveals a number of things. First, that pressure of global public opinion, and the growing strength and importance of clean industries and technologies, is forcing the US back onto the track of listening to scientific advice on the threat of climate change after the dangerous denial of this under Trump. Second, that because of this very widespread international concern, the US is attempting to regain leadership of international public opinion after the impact of Xi Jinping’s ambitious new climate announcements last year – to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2060 and to peak before 2030 – that led to the first international movement towards delivering the Paris Agreement in four years.

The key question is how far will Biden go towards meeting the US’s responsibilities on climate change? While the Western media is all too eager to portray Biden as the world’s climate leader, it is important to assess objectively what is required for the US to align with the Paris Climate Agreement target of keeping temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and how this compares with what Biden is so far delivering, and expected to announce.

Four things are required – 2030 climate targets that align with 1.5 degrees, a funded plan to deliver it, support for developing countries to adapt and pursue green development, and to pursue global cooperation on tackling climate change – rather than a cold war against China.

Time is running out

The abandonment by the US of its previous denial of climate change under Trump comes late. The scientific analysis is clear. The world will stay on a path towards 3 degrees of warming unless countries significantly scale up their 2030 goals and action plans for this decade ahead of the UN Climate talks in November.

The next five years are critical to ensure a prosperous, ecologically secure future for humanity. Emissions must be cut globally by 7.6% each year and in total at least halve by 2030. Without sufficient action in the next five years, crossing the 1.5-degree threshold of warming compared to pre-industrial levels, which is considered catastrophic for humanity, will unfortunately become inevitable. Time is so short because, almost two centuries after the industrial revolution, the world’s total carbon budget – the amount of carbon that can be safely contained in the atmosphere before 1.5 degrees is reached – is nearly gone. If global emissions continued at today’s rate, the world’s entire carbon budget would be spent in just seven years. Every year now counts.

Financing and investment must decisively move towards supporting green development and away from fossil fuels to avoid emissions lock in from new fossil fuel projects that will take the world over 1.5 degrees, and to ensure developing countries are fairly supported. Crucially, global cooperation must not be undermined by US moves towards a cold war and attempts to divide those who support climate action.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

Time is so short because Western countries have failed to take sufficient action on climate change in recent decades, despite being historically responsible for the majority of the carbon emissions currently in the atmosphere. Countries such as the US that developed in the wake of the 19th century industrial revolution, benefitted from unlimited use of fossil fuels, and now have high levels of development, are required cut their emissions first and fastest, and to support developing countries with climate finance and technology transfer to enable them to take a sustainable development path – recognised in the Paris Agreement principle of nations having “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

The record and obligations of the US – the world’s biggest climate polluter

Cumulatively, the US is the world’s largest carbon emitter. Historically the US, a country with a population today of 328 million, is responsible for emitting twice the amount of carbon than China has, a country of 1.4bn.

This is both because of how long the US has been putting significant levels of carbon into the atmosphere – but also because it has an extremely high rate of per capita emissions. At the present time each US resident on average emits an average of 17 tonnes of carbon each year. This is two and half times the amount of a Chinese or European resident, and eight times as much as someone in India.

There has been a small amount of progress over the past two decades, with carbon emissions in the US falling 14% since their peak in 2005. This was mainly due to a reduction in coal use and an increase in renewable electricity. But at the same time, President’s Obama and Trump’s tenure saw a boom in fracking for oil and gas that made the US the world’s largest fossil fuel exporter and is worryingly correlated to a rise in methane emissions over the past decade, a more potent but more short-lived greenhouse gas than CO2.

From this high baseline, what is needed for the US to align with 1.5 degrees?

The US should cut its domestic emissions by 80% by 2030

The announcement everyone is waiting for from the US is what 2030 commitment the US puts forward as its updated Paris Agreement goal. This is likely to be announced this week at or just before Biden’s April Leaders Summit. Washington insiders are suggesting a 45%-50% cut as a likely figure. While this would be a step up in ambition from the Obama era, this still falls significantly short of the US’s fair share of reaching 1.5 degrees.

A cut of between 40-50% would bring US per capita emissions to 8 tonnes of CO2 in 2030 – a level higher than China and the EU today, and almost double the global average of 4.8. By 2030, the IPPC suggests global per capita emissions need to reach an average of 2.3 tonnes.

The range of figures given to calculate the US’s fair share of domestic emissions cuts is between 70% and 87% by 2030 – plus financing emissions cuts internationally. For example, the US Fair Shares project suggests that the US’s fair share of emissions cuts to deliver 1.5 degrees is 195% by 2030, and that this is delivered with 70% of domestic emissions cuts within the US, plus finance and technology transfer to support international carbon cuts equivalent to 125% of US emissions.

The mainstream Western media cannot be relied upon to accurately report what level of climate ambition is required from the US to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees but rather to manage expectations. A key article in the Guardian on 19 April 2021, for example, which analyses the situation heading into Biden’s climate summit, does not even cover calls for the US to slash emissions above 50% by 2030 and suggests that “a range of 40 to 45% is more realistic.”

Support for developing countries

Given the rate of US carbon emissions, it is not possible for the US to deliver its fair share of emissions cuts without supporting global south countries to adapt and pursue green development.

Global south countries have contributed least to climate change, but are set to experience the majority of the impacts. Finance is needed to support adaptation and resilience to climate impacts that they are already experiencing at today’s 1.2 degrees of warming, and that will be felt at 1.5 degrees, to compensate for the loss and damage caused by these impacts, and to enable a transition to green and sustainable development.

So far, however, global north countries have not come forward with the level of funding promised. Over a decade ago the countries made a commitment as part of the UN climate framework to provide a ‘floor’ of $100 billion of climate finance per year by 2020. However, the latest estimate by Oxfam is that only around $20 billion in real terms is being provided – due to much of the finance being given in the form of loans with interest.

What level of financing should be provided by the US? Campaigners have called for the US to put forward $8 billion a year, as it’s contribution to the $100 billion and 40 democrats recently called for $4bn to be submitted this year as the first instalment of a new $6n a year pledge. Consequently, Biden’s recent proposal of $1.2 billion for the fund has been seen, even by those favourable to the administration, as woefully inadequate.

However, the real scale of the US’s obligations on climate finance may be much larger.

The Climate Fair Shares project, based on the work of the Stockholm Environment Institute, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental organisations, analysed that delivering the US’s fair share fully internationally would mean providing $809.72 billion of international climate finance in 2030. It should be noted that they calculate a higher fair share of emissions cuts by 2030 than the US fair shares project referenced above -– between 263-273%, as oppose to 195%.

Massive state investment is needed for a rapid green transition

As the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the commitments put forward by the US, European Union and China reduce their emissions by 2030 will be decisive for all humanity.

More important than targets are the policies and funding needed to actually fulfil the promises made. Central to delivering a rapid green transition that is compatible with keeping global temperatures below a 1.5 degrees rise is enormous amounts of investment in renewables and green infrastructure.

Over the last decade China has led the way on investing in a green transition – it is the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, investing in 2020 more than the US and Germany combined. As a result China has a third of the world’s renewables energy patents and is the world’s largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles – and has made adopting clean energy and vehicles economic for the rest of the world in the process, as massive investment has brought down costs more than anyone expected over recent years.

The new US administration has verbally set its sights on competing with China to “lead the energy revolution.” In the words of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on the 19 April: “it’s difficult to imagine the United States winning the long-term strategic competition with China if we cannot lead the renewable energy revolution.”

A dramatic increase in US investment in clean energy and green infrastructure, alongside a rapid phase out of fossil fuels, is objectively necessary to stop climate catastrophe. Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan is a step in the right direction. Of this $2 trillion, It is proposed that roughly $650 billion is invested over 8 years in projects that would broadly support a clean energy transition, whilst $320 billion is being put forward for high carbon projects and infrastructure including roads and airports.

Whilst welcome and a radical ideological departure from the economic orthodoxy that has dominated Washington for decades, $2 trillion over 8 years, with just $650 billion dedicated to clean energy, is simply not enough to deliver the green transition needed. The progressive wing of the US Democrats are calling for $10 trillion to be spent over the next decade on a Green Infrastructure Plan – which is closer to the scale of ambition that is needed. There is also the question of whether Biden can get his infrastructure proposals agreed by the US Senate as Republican opposition mounts.

At the same time Biden is requesting an annual military budget of $753 billion for 2022 – demonstrating it is a greater priority for the US to maintain its global military predominance, including the presence of 400 US military bases surrounding China, than it is to avert the catastrophic consequences of the world failing to stop climate change. $753 billion for the military in one year versus $650 billion over 8 years for clean energy shows clearly what the overarching priority of the US administration is.

Maximum pressure therefore must be brought from all progressive forces on the US to increase its commitment to climate action, crucially by increasing the funding for climate action to deliver Green New Deal in the US and its support for developing countries to pursue sustainable development. The US is the world’s wealthiest country, and the world’s biggest polluter – It must use its enormous resources to take the world back from the climate precipice – rather than seek to dominate the word militarily.