At Biden Climate Summit, World Leaders Pledge To Do More, Act Faster
Updated April 22, 2021 at 3:33 PM ET
Calling climate change "the existential crisis of our time," President Biden announced an aggressive new plan to reduce the United States' contribution to global warming during a two-day virtual summit Thursday, and he urged other countries to do the same.
Immediacy is needed. Average global temperatures have already increased more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.2 degrees Celsius, since 1880, and scientists have long stressed the need to keep temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the most catastrophic climate change scenarios.
A new report Thursday from the insurance company Swiss Re warns that without action, climate change could reduce global economic output by $23 trillion annually by mid-century.
Biden's new plan would cut America's greenhouse gas emissions in half, from 2005 levels, by the end of the decade — an ambitious goal that puts the U.S. back in the fore of the global fight against climate change. He was joined by 40 heads of government at a virtual gathering on Earth Day and emphasized, as Biden has done repeatedly as president, the economic opportunity in transitioning to a more sustainable global economy.
"I see autoworkers building the next generation of electric vehicles," Biden said. "I see the engineers and the construction workers building new carbon capture and green hydrogen plants."
But the U.S. cannot do it alone. And the global summit, Biden's first major international gathering, aims to put America back in a leadership role after four years of climate inaction and denialism under the Trump administration. It's also meant to build trust among other nations, given that the U.S. has been the largest contributor to climate change over the past century.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, acknowledging the immense cost of transitioning the global economy, said her department is working to secure private financing to help countries move away from fossil fuels and adapt to climate impacts that have already become unavoidable. She also noted the administration's request for $1.2 billion for the Green Climate Fund, an international framework that's designed to help developing countries — which have contributed far less to global warming — deal with its mounting impacts.
The White House has increasingly framed much of its foreign policy around countering China, so it was notable that Chinese President Xi Jinping was the first leader of another nation to speak after U.S. officials. China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, nearly doubling U.S. levels in recent years and funding coal power both at home and in various countries.
"China has committed to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality in a much shorter time span than what might take many developed countries, and that requires extraordinary hard efforts from China," said Xi. "We will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects. We will strictly limit the increase in coal consumption."
As world leaders took turns offering opening remarks, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson colorfully echoed Biden's jobs-focused frame for climate action.
"It's vital for all of us to show that this is not all about some expensive, politically correct, green act of bunny hugging. This is about growth and jobs," Johnson said. "Cake — have, eat — is my message to you."
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has aggressively rolled back environmental protections in his country, moved up Brazil's goal for achieving carbon neutrality by a decade, to 2050. He also pledged to eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030 and said he would double the money allocated to inspections.
The Amazon, the largest swath of tropical rainforest on the planet, plays an outsized role in stabilizing the global climate, and scientists warn that its destruction could further destabilize weather worldwide.
The U.S. and Brazil have been negotiating a deal on Amazon deforestation, but Reuters reported earlier this month that they hit an impasse, with Brazil demanding payment up front and the U.S. asking for results first. At the summit, Bolosnaro said there must be "fair payment for environmental services," to recognize the economic importance of conservation.
One session of the virtual summit focused on the national security perils of climate change. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called it "profoundly destabilizing," citing the rise in geopolitical competition in the melting Arctic, climate-fueled global migration and threats to military bases, including from increasingly intense wildfires in California, which he said have caused repeated evacuations.
Biden's climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, spent the weeks leading up to the summit traveling the world, visiting China, India and several other countries, in order to build international support for the event. The White House is framing the meeting as one of several key moments leading up to a November conference in Scotland, where leaders will update the 2015 Paris climate agreement. That conference, Kerry said, is "what many of us think is the last best hope for us to get on track and do what we need to do."
The U.S. left the Paris climate agreement under the Trump administration. Biden began the process of rejoining it on his first day in office.
Kerry also echoed Biden's message that battling climate change brings enormous opportunity to scale up the emerging technology that's needed to reach the U.S. goal for cutting emissions. "The largest market the world has ever known is waiting for everybody, and growing by the day right now," he said. "The challenge is whether it happens fast enough."
The summit is a major symbolic step toward fulfilling central themes of Biden's run for president: a promise to repair the United States' damaged relationship with the rest of the world and recommit the country to global efforts to stem the damage of climate change.
"The U.S. is back in the game," Biden's national climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, recently told the NPR Politics Podcast. "Clearly, I wish we didn't lose the four years of the prior administration, and I wish we could take that time back because the time is now to really make big moves forward. But we are ready and poised to... make a strong commitment."
Biden regularly talked about convening a climate summit during his run for the White House, but because of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, the summit looks and feels very different from the usual gatherings of heads of government.
It's entirely virtual, and world leaders have faced an array of occasional audio glitches. They've also joined during all hours of the day or night, depending on their location. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that fact by beginning his statement by wishing everyone a "good morning, good afternoon, good evening."
To compensate for that challenge, the summit is spread out across two days, mostly taking place during the morning hours in Washington, D.C.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden contributed to this story.
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