President Biden plans to host a high-level Earth Day summit, delivering on a campaign pledge and challenging his climate policy team to ready ambitious and credible commitments that can stand up to global scrutiny.
A White House planning document says Biden will announce tomorrow the April 22 gathering, marking the fifth anniversary of the signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement, where then-Secretary of State John Kerry signed the accord he helped negotiate the previous December.
In his new role as Biden's presidential special envoy for climate change, Kerry is likely to lead the summit, which Biden promised would be aimed at persuading major emitters to strengthen their national commitments and start narrowing the gap between the world's current emissions trajectory and the measures that science indicates are needed to contain warming to relatively safe levels.
But there's a problem: The U.S. doesn't have a Paris commitment. The Trump administration, which walked away from the climate deal, also scrapped the United States' so-called nationally determined contribution, or NDC, to Paris. The Obama-era pledge for 2025 is already out of date, and experts warn it will take months to construct a new 2030 edition.
Since Biden signed an executive order after his inauguration last week starting the U.S. return to Paris, Kerry has hit the circuit of domestic and international climate conferences expressing confidence in America's future climate leadership and "humility" for the "absence" of the Trump years.
In video comments to the Climate Adaptation Summit yesterday hosted by the Dutch government, Kerry said the new president is dedicated to ensuring that this fall's United Nations' climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, end with all major emitters offering stepped-up pledges to combat warming.
"We have already launched our work to prepare a new U.S. nationally determined contribution that meets the urgency of the challenge, and we aim to announce our NDC as soon as practicable," Kerry said.
He promised that the U.S. — the world's largest historical carbon emitter — would make significant new investments in climate mitigation "both internationally and as part of our efforts to build back better from COVID" and that it would deliver on its financial commitments. That would include an outstanding balance of $2 billion the Obama administration pledged to the U.N. Green Climate Fund.
Biden portrayed his summit proposal last year as an opportunity to pressure other countries — notably China — to do more toward meeting Paris emission targets. China has yet to update its 2030 commitment, although it did roll out a new promise last autumn to zero out emissions by 2060. But while China might provide more short-term details when it releases its 14th five-year plan in March, experts say a fully conceived U.S. plan may still be months away.
"It's actually a pretty big lift to come up with a full NDC because you can't just think of a number. You have to think through the entire policy strategy, which is, at this point, both a federal and nonfederal strategy across all sectors of the economy," said Nathan Hultman, an Obama White House official who helped build the 2025 Paris pledge and is now founder and director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland.
The 2025 pledge to cut emissions between 26% and 28% compared with 2005 levels by 2025 relied on ambitious federal executive actions. The Biden administration faces pressure to put forward a new pledge that is in the neighborhood of 50% by 2030 — taking account of legislative, regulatory and nonfederal actions.
"That's a lot of strategic thinking that has to be done," Hultman said. And while he said important analysis was performed outside of the federal government during the Trump years, White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy, Kerry and Biden's agencies will have substantial number crunching to do before laying out a new commitment.
And Hultman said there was debate both in and outside the Biden administration about whether April was the right time frame.
"I think everybody both in the government and outside of the government would recognize that getting that done by April is an extraordinarily big lift," he said.
'Extra boost of energy'
Hultman and others said the White House could offer something short of a full NDC in April that still moves the ball on climate action. That could involve top-line numbers on emission reductions for 2030 that would be fleshed out later.
Alden Meyer, a senior associate with U.K.-based climate think tank E3G, said Biden's summit could also focus on the importance of using pandemic recovery spending to shift economies toward lower-carbon models, rather than simply propping up high-emitting industries.
The president is expected to propose economic recovery legislation next month that includes substantial green energy investment. Meyer said the April conference could raise awareness among other major developed and developing players that their stimulus dollars should be spent on Paris-aligned projects.
"That needs to be part of this conversation, because many of those decisions are going to be made before countries get to Glasgow in November," he said.
"And if they continue to go predominantly to shoring up fossil fuel companies, the airline industry and other incumbents and not forward-looking investments that help meet the Paris objectives by driving decarbonization of the global economy, then we're missing a real opportunity," Meyer said.
The Biden conference joins a packed calendar of multilateral events with climate change on the agenda. Leaders are scheduled to meet in Cornwall, England, in June for a meeting of leading industrial nations, which the United Kingdom will use to help set the stage for a successful outcome in Glasgow, which it is also presiding over.
And major developed and developing countries are scheduled to meet in Italy next fall, where climate change and fossil fuel finance are again likely to be on the docket.
David Waskow, who directs the World Resources Institute's international climate program, said the Biden team is certainly aware of the need to coordinate its summit with those and other meetings, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel's final Petersberg Climate Dialogue. But he said the Biden summit would provide an early jolt of energy to start 2021.
"This is part of a drumbeat over the course of the year," he said. "There are some particular roles that this event might play, but I think in general terms it helps create a sense of buildup toward [the 26th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change] and sort of adds that extra boost of energy that the U.S. brings by being back at the table."
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.