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How Biden’s climate summit can accelerate global ambition

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By Nat Keohane

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Tomorrow is Earth Day, and it is a pivotal one for global climate action. On Thursday and Friday, President Joe Biden will host a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, fulfilling a pledge he made on the campaign trail.

The ultimate measure of the Summit’s success will only become clear later this year, at the COP26 conference scheduled for November in Glasgow. The Biden administration has been in office fewer than 100 days, and diplomacy takes time; some of the administration’s efforts will undoubtedly only bear fruit in the coming months. Nonetheless, the Summit is a critical first milestone for a president who has pledged to make climate change a top priority. Here’s what to expect from the Summit – and what we are looking for.

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How high will the US go on ambition?

The centerpiece of the Summit will be the announcement of the U.S. “nationally determined contribution,” or NDC. On Biden’s first day in office, he brought the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement. That came with the obligation to establish a new emissions target, which the administration promised to announce by this week’s Summit.

Since then, a growing chorus has called for the U.S. to set a target to cut climate pollution at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. (In a promising sign, early press reports suggest that the White House may set a target in that range — although the White House has yet to confirm a number).

EDF was one of the first organizations to call for that level of ambition when we released a report in early March showing that a target of at least 50% was both ambitious and credible. Ambitious, because it would put the U.S. on track to achieving President Biden’s commitment of net zero emissions by 2050, which is consistent with what the science says is needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. Moreover, an NDC of 50% below would be among the top four most ambitious targets globally, as a recent analysis by the widely respected Rhodium Group demonstrated.

A target of cutting emissions in half by 2030 is also credible. The test of credibility, for an economy-wide target a decade away, is whether it is technically and economically achievable with the right mix of policies. Abundant evidence demonstrates that a 50% cut passes that test. EDF’s report detailed four separate modeling analyses that identified pathways to cutting emissions by that amount, 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.

Businesses understand that an ambitious and credible NDC will be key to supercharging American competitiveness in the global clean energy economy. That’s why over 400 businesses and investors, including General Motors, Microsoft and Walmart, signed a letter released by the We Mean Business Coalition supporting a cut of at least 50%.

The NDC is the first crucial test of the Biden administration’s climate ambition. While it’s true that it is only a target, it will provide a beacon for U.S. climate ambition going forward – and the benchmark against which progress can be measured.

The NDC is the first crucial test of the Biden administration’s climate ambition. While it’s true that it is only a target, it will provide a beacon for U.S. climate ambition going forward – and the benchmark against which progress can be measured.

While the overall NDC is likely to dominate the headlines, we’ll also be looking for what the administration says about methane. Methane, emitted from a range of sources including oil and gas operations, landfills, and agriculture, accounts for a quarter of the warming the world is already experiencing. Much more potent than carbon dioxide on a pound-for-pound basis, methane also degrades more quickly in the atmosphere. As a result, reducing methane is the most powerful way of slowing the world’s rate of warming in the coming decades – a necessary and vital complement to the deep reductions in carbon dioxide from fossil fuel consumption and tropical deforestation that will be needed to stabilize long-run temperatures.

In addition to the new NDC, the Biden administration is also 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. But even that would still leave the U.S. nearly a billion dollars short of the $3 billion pledge that President Obama made back in 2015 (only $1 billion of which has been paid to date), while many other major economies have doubled their pledges in the years since.

What other countries can the US bring along?

Of course, while the U.S. has put more climate pollution into the atmosphere than any other country and remains the world’s second-largest emitter, it still accounts for less than one-seventh of current emissions. So the true measure of renewed American leadership on climate will be whether the U.S. can help persuade other countries to strengthen their commitments as well — not just this week, but in the coming months leading up to the next UN climate conference, known as COP26 and planned for November 2021 in Glasgow.

The true measure of renewed American leadership on climate will be whether the U.S. can help persuade other countries to strengthen their commitments as well.

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 US 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 reporting transparently on them. And it couldn’t come at a more critical time. The current crop of NDCs, announced in 2015, falls well short of meeting the agreement’s objective of limiting warming to well below 2˚C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limiting warming to 1.5˚C. More ambitious targets are needed, along with much more aggressive implementation. With an ambitious target of its own, the Biden administration will be well-placed to galvanize the global action that is needed.

What will China say?

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. Observers are now looking to see if those pledges translate into concrete actions. A first indication 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).

While China announced an updated NDC last December, there are ample opportunities for the world’s largest emitter to step up near-term action in support of its pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Key opportunities include action on methane (mentioned above); a commitment to stop financing coal-fired power plants in other countries through China’s monumental Belt and Road Initiative; and steps to flatten China’s emissions curve to reach a peak in carbon dioxide emissions sooner than the current 2030 target, and at a lower level. China could also include a CO2 target for 2035 as part of its “Beautiful China” initiative.

The private sector gets into the mix

In addition to the targets to be announced by governments this week, major commitments are expected from the private sector. Yesterday, EDF, in partnership with RMI, launched the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA) to accelerate the path to net zero aviation by driving investment in high quality sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), with Boeing, BCG, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Netflix and Salesforce serving as founding companies. High costs and low demand are preventing wider SAF usage. This alliance seeks to break through this barrier by catalyzing new and additional SAF production and technological innovation, and supporting member engagement in policy-making. SABA will unlock demand for SAF, scale the production and adoption of SAF and drive down global aviation emissions.

Other ambitious private-sector commitments are also expected, including net-zero commitments by major financial players as well as a new public-private initiative to mobilize results-based finance for tropical forest protection at scale.

What comes next: Backing up the new US NDC with domestic actions

Once the Biden administration announces its NDC, the critical work of implementing it will commence. The White House has already taken key steps in this direction, most notably by paving the way for offshore wind and by proposing its historic American Jobs Plan, which would include nearly $1 trillion in climate investments, including in vehicle electrification, domestic manufacturing supply chains, clean energy, mass transit, and climate-resilient infrastructure.

The Biden administration is taking steps to address the consequences of climate change as well — and ensure that they are incorporated into decisions by investors and companies throughout the economy. This week, the White House is expected to release a new executive order designed to protect our financial system from the threats posed by climate change; the EO is expected to direct financial regulators and agencies across the executive branch to take steps to manage and reduce climate-related financial risks.

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress is also getting involved. 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., and growing engagement on the Hill from the ag sector and the business community on pro-climate policies.

Yesterday, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and John Boozman (R-AR), the Chairman and Ranking Member (respectively) of the Senate Agriculture Committee, re-introduced a bipartisan bill, The Growing Climate Solutions Act, with a number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors to help agriculture be part of the climate solution. And this morning Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senate Finance Committee Chairman, introduced the Clean Energy for America Act, which would reorient the tax code to focus more on providing tax incentives for emissions reductions.

A chance for American leadership

While plans for COP26 remain uncertain in the face of the continuing Covid-19 crisis, the direction the world needs to take is clear. The next ten years will prove decisive in the fight against climate change. Much greater ambition is needed over that span — from the U.S., from China, from other major emitters, and from the world as a whole — along with effective implementation. At this week’s Summit, the White House has a chance to show that America is ready to help lead the way.

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