Throwing down the gauntlet to the climate crisis, Joe Biden unveiled an ambitious new pledge to halve US carbon emissions over the next 9 years as he called on world leaders to “overcome the greatest existential crisis of our time:”
“This is a moral imperative, an economic imperative, a moment of peril, but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities. Time is short but I believe we can do this and I believe we will do this.”
Addressing a virtual gathering of over 40 heads of state at an Earth Day summit on Thursday, the US president urged other countries to step up to the plate with more ambitious targets: “Particularly those of us that represent the world’s largest economies. Let’s run that race.”
Scrambling to regain America’s international credibility after four long years of climate denial under Donald Trump, the White House announced that it will slash US carbon emissions by 50 to 52% by 2030, blazing a trail to hit net zero emissions within the next three decades.
Although these targets put it in line with the EU and behind the UK, they represent a stark break from the previous administration which pulled the US out of the hard-won Paris climate pact: Six years ago, over 190 nations across the globe promised to limit planetary heating to 2 degrees celsius, with more ambitious aims for 1.5C.
And, although Trump undid decades of climate progress when he dragged America out, Biden rejoined the pact immediately after winning Office last November, and this new pledge marks Washington’s determination to return back to the climate fold.
“This new target gives us significant leverage to push for climate action abroad,” said one White House official. “Every ton of reductions achieved in the United States has a multiplier effect in inspiring climate action overseas.”
And the vow couldn’t come sooner. According to the United Nations, the world is on the verge of a climate “abyss”.
Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed that the planet has already warmed by 1.2 degree celsius since the dawn of the Industrial Age. That puts it within striking distance of the 1.5C limit recommended by scientists to stave off the worst effects of climate chaos.
The news comes three years after the UN warned that an apocalyptic world plagued by raging wildfires, blistering heatwaves, punishing super storms, and catastrophic food shortages will be unleashed within our lifetimes, possibly within two decades.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Make no mistake: 2021 is a “make or break year” warned UN Secretary General, António Guterres: “Decision makers must walk the talk. If this task was urgent before, it’s crucial now.”
Scientists across the world have warned that all nations must halve their emissions over the next decade.
Several nations followed America’s lead with Japan, Canada, the UK and the EU all committing to steeper cuts. Even Brazil, a notorious climate change skeptic, vowed to end illegal logging by 2030.
However, even though the US is the world’s largest emitter historically, today it only accounts for 15% of global emissions: China is now the biggest polluter, accounting for nearly one third.
Although Beijing made no new emissions pledges, it did promise to “strictly limit increasing its coal consumption” over the next 5 years, whilst vowing to bring it down further over the following 5 years.
And, this could prove to be significant as China is not only the world’s largest consumer of coal, it is still expanding its fleet of coal-fired power plants.
The Chinese premier, Xi Jinping urged nations to strike “harmony between man and nature” whilst reiterating his country’s pledge to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2060.
The climate crisis represents one of the few areas which could reunite the US and China after four cantankerous years under Trump: the Paris climate pact was in fact the brainchild of former US president, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.
An extraordinary achievement in high diplomatic art, it was hailed as “a monumental triumph” when it was struck in 2015. After all, after more than 20 years of squabbling, it brought over 190 nations to the table to agree to one thing: to save humanity from the worst effects of planetary heating.
Cooperation between the world’s two largest superpowers and biggest emitters would give the climate crisis a much needed shot in the arm. However, if Washington does not meet its new goals, or backtracks yet again under a new administration, it will lose trust from not only from Beijing, but the entire global community.
And, this highlights the central weakness behind America’s pledge: unlike targets set by both the EU and UK, it is not enshrined in law.
Moreover, unlike China which has the luxury to draw up ten year plans and stick to them, the US is beset by short-term political cycles and a belligerent opposition party which largely denies the science behind climate change.
In fact, Republicans were quick to denounce the new targets as illegal, highlighting the difficulty the Biden administration will face trying to push its plans through Congress.
Nevertheless, Biden can employ his executive branch for now, and has framed the green energy revolution as a panacea for “millions of good paying union jobs.” After all, what better way to fire up the economy after the economic fall out of Covid-19?
Governments across the world have no choice but to spend their way out of that crisis, so why not make it a win-win for both the planet and the economy?
Despite all the many unresolved issues, world leaders largely welcomed the US back into the fold and looked forward to working with an administration which embraces both science and the global community.
Moreover, the summit marks the first in a series of gatherings which will take place this year, including the G7, G20 and critical UN climate talks in Scotland this November.
Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry said he hoped that 2021 will be the year when nations across the globe make a decisive shift towards clean energy in a transformation which will rival the Industrial Revolution: “This is the greatest moment of transformation of our economy in our lifetime.”
“More than 50 years ago, a generation rallied to confront the environmental crises they faced, “ wrote Biden in his 2021 Earth Day proclamation: “They took action in hopes that those in power would listen. Today, a new generation is sounding the alarm louder than ever, demanding that world leaders act. It is in all our interests to rise to that challenge and let our legacy be one of action.”