At Earth Day Climate Summit, Biden Pushes for Sharp Cut to Greenhouse-Gas Emissions

At Earth Day Climate Summit, Biden Pushes for Sharp Cut to Greenhouse-Gas Emissions

18:10 - Some countries call on rich nations to shoulder more responsibility

WASHINGTON—President Biden sought to assert U.S. leadership in global climate talks, committing to a sharp reduction in the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions at a summit Thursday that drew promises from other world leaders to take action and calls for rich nations to shoulder more responsibility.

“No nation can solve this crisis on our own,” Mr. Biden said at the start of the two-day virtual climate summit at the White House. “All of us, and particularly those of us that represent the world’s largest economies, we have to step up.”

This week’s climate summit is aimed at jump-starting global efforts to reduce emissions as part of the Paris agreement, which calls on countries to ratchet up their climate commitments every five years. The deal relies largely on international pressure, rather than legally binding enforcement mechanisms, to convince countries to make deep emissions cuts.

Scientists and activists say that without major action this decade from the U.S., China, the European Union, India and other top emitters, countries won’t be able to meet the Paris agreement’s goal of keeping average global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Temperature increases above that threshold could be devastating for some ecosystems and could result in rising seas that flood major cities, among other risks, according to the United Nations.

Mr. Biden used the summit to unveil a new target that calls for cutting U.S. emissions 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030. The year 2005 is a common baseline for such climate targets.

In 2019, the most recent year for which complete data is available, U.S. emissions were about 13% below 2005 levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Emissions last year were projected to be down 21% from that 2005 baseline, due in part to a slowdown related to the pandemic. But this year, emissions are tracking higher again as the economy recovers.

“The signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable and the cost of inaction keeps mounting,” Mr. Biden said at the summit, which featured 40 heads of state, with allies and rivals such as Russia and China among them.

Major companies, including Apple Inc., Johnson & Johnson and Walmart Inc., have endorsed the president’s 50% target. But critics among congressional Republicans and the energy industry said Mr. Biden’s plan could hurt the economy by raising the price of energy.

“What they put out today addresses the risks of climate change, but it doesn’t address the key challenge of affordable and reliable energy,” said Mike Sommers, leader of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. trade group for oil-and-gas companies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the summit that China would reduce coal consumption starting in 2025. Mr. Xi’s promise offered a peak but not an end to China’s coal consumption and didn’t meet the expectations of climate campaigners who were hoping for a more ambitious emissions-reduction timetable.

Instead, Mr. Xi reiterated the timetable he had already set forth for China reaching peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality—net-zero carbon-dioxide emissions—by 2060.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a new partnership with the U.S. to expand renewable energy. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would aim for a reduction in carbon output below 2005 levels of between 40% to 45% by the end of the decade. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. was putting into legislation its intention to cut emissions by 78% from 1990 levels by 2035. That goal, announced earlier in the week, is a step up from a previous target of a 68% emissions cut by 2030.

The EU this week approved a trillion-dollar plan aimed at making the 27-country bloc climate-neutral by 2050 and improving its overall ecological performance.

China, the world’s No. 1 emitter, and many developing nations say they shouldn’t shoulder the same responsibilities as developed countries to combat climate change, arguing that wealthy nations were allowed to release greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere unchecked for decades while they industrialized.

“Developed countries need to increase climate ambition and action and make concrete efforts to help developing countries accelerate the transition to green and low-carbon development,” Mr. Xi said.

Marshall Islands President David Kabua, whose country is threatened by sea-level rise, also pressed for help from wealthy nations.

“Too often, vulnerable countries hear the excuse that state emission cuts are too costly, but political signals, especially from the major economies, shape decisions on investment and innovation for low-carbon pathways,” he said. “Now is the moment for the signal to be unequivocal.”

Many nations’ leaders are skeptical of American promises on climate following decades of sharp policy shifts, including President George W. Bush abandoning the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and President Donald Trump withdrawing from the Paris climate deal that President Barack Obama played a central role in negotiating in 2015.

Developing countries are also pursuing billions of dollars in financial assistance to help them lower their emissions, adapt to the effects of climate change and offset the costs of limiting their reliance on fossil fuels. Mr. Biden said the U.S. would double by 2024 the annual climate-related financing it provides to developing countries.

Under a plan released by the White House, federal agencies will move toward ending U.S. government investment in foreign carbon-intensive, fossil fuel-based energy projects. And the U.S. International Development Finance Corp., a federal agency that helps finance projects in developing nations, will transition to a portfolio that is net-zero in emissions by 2040. The president added that the U.S. continues to support an effort to send $100 billion from rich countries to developing nations.

Mr. Biden’s new emissions goal would nearly double the target set by Mr. Obama, which called for a 26% to 28% cut by 2025 from 2005 levels. The Biden administration said this week that the U.S. is on track to meet that target.

Global progress has been slow since the Paris accords went into effect. Several of its biggest advocates found it difficult to fulfill their ambitions, and within a year, China’s emissions began accelerating again after a brief slowdown.

Since Mr. Biden took office in January, Congress has made little progress on legislation that would push the U.S. toward the 50% emissions-reduction target, and the Biden administration hasn’t formally proposed major new climate regulations

In announcing the target, administration officials reiterated their broad climate-policy goals, including zeroing out carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants by 2035, increasing the energy efficiency of buildings and cutting emissions in the transportation sector. The White House hasn’t outlined a detailed plan to meet the target.

Administration officials said they see multiple paths toward achieving their goals, through a combination of federal policies and action by states, companies and other subnational groups. Mr. Biden has proposed a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package that includes measures to reduce emissions, such as a proposed standard mandating that U.S. electricity be produced with low-carbon energy sources.

The 24-page climate plan the U.S. submitted to the U.N. on Thursday includes broad top-line options for reaching the target. A federal climate task force set up by Mr. Biden will release a more-detailed plan later this year, officials said. Final negotiations aimed at increasing national climate targets is scheduled by the U.N. for November in Glasgow.Critics have called for more-aggressive enforcement of any new emissions deals, which is likely to be a major part of talks in the months to come. Mr. Kerry said emerging satellite and artificial-intelligence technology make it easier now to track and verify emissions, and he said the U.S. will consider deploying them.

A 2019 report from climate advocates projected that U.S. states, cities and businesses alone could reduce U.S. emissions to 37% below 2005 levels by 2030. With additional federal actions to drive a rapid reduction in electricity-sector emissions and wide use of electric vehicles, that number could increase to 49%, the report said.

Without new laws and regulations in place, it will be difficult to persuade other countries to trust that U.S. action is coming and follow suit.

“Anything in the range of 50% is going to be tough to deliver,” said George David Banks, who was Mr. Trump’s top White House adviser on climate issues. “If the U.S. puts forward a really ambitious target and China doesn’t do anything, Republicans will say, ‘You’re soft on China, you’re doubling down on this bad deal.’ ”

John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, has already said China’s timetable for reducing emissions isn’t fast enough.

He told The Wall Street Journal the administration’s efforts should be judged on whether other countries can quicken the timeline on their pledges to eliminate emissions. He reiterated his concerns about China’s target during a private call with Senate Democrats on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the briefing.

“China has committed to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality in a much shorter timespan than what might take many developed countries, and that requires extraordinary hard efforts from China,” Mr. Xi said in his speech Thursday.

Brazil has asked the Biden administration for $1 billion in exchange for it reducing deforestation by 40%. Indian officials have also already stressed to Mr. Kerry that the U.S. and other industrialized countries need to make good on pledges to mobilize as much as $100 billion a year in support of similar efforts.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, improving the previous target of 2060, while promising to end illegal deforestation by 2030. In his speech at the summit, Mr. Bolsonaro called on rich nations and carbon markets to help finance such environmental protections.

“There must be fair payments for environmental services provided by our biomes to the planet at large as a way to recognize the economic nature of environmental conservation activities,” Mr. Bolsonaro said. “We stand ready and remain open to international cooperation.”