Biden’s Earth Day Summit

Abstract 

United States President Joe Biden hosted a two-day virtual summit of world leaders coinciding with Earth Day to address the global climate crisis. With a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% by 2030 relative to 2005 levels, Biden intends to cement his leadership in the global fight against climate change and develop credibility in his plea for other countries to join the cause. 

Key Points

  • During Biden’s Earth Day summit on April 22nd, the U.S. announced it planned to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels 50-52% by 2030. This pledge is twice the previous target of the Obama administration to reach a 26-28% reduction by 2025. In order to meet these new goals, significant changes need to occur for the methods of U.S. power generation and the power sources in the transportation sector.

  • The EIA estimates U.S. emissions are mainly allocated between transportation, 29%, electricity generation, 25%, and industrial processes, 23%. Although nearly 40% of U.S. electricity generation in 2020 came from net-zero carbon sources, meeting Biden’s goal will require rapid reduction in coal fire and natural gas power plants. It is still uncertain whether enough replacement electricity can be generated through solar and wind power alone with this fast of a transition.

  • The U.S. is currently on pace to reduce light vehicle emissions 50% by 2035. In order to meet Biden’s 2030 goal, much larger incentives for purchasing new electric vehicles and government subsidized “cash for clunker” type programs will likely need to be implemented.

  • One of Biden’s goals from the recent Earth Day summit was to prove to other major greenhouse gas emitting countries that the U.S. is committed to a clean energy economy since historically the priority of climate policy has changed from administration to administration. The climate goals are also backed by several large organizations with global influence, including McDonalds, Ford Motor Company, and Google.

  • While not all countries at the summit committed to global climate goals, several countries announced their own targets:
    • Canada plans to reduce 40-45% of its 2005 baseline greenhouse emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. 
    • Japan pledged to cut emissions from 2013 levels 46% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
    • South Korea plans to end all public financing for overseas coal projects and submit new emissions targets later in 2021.
    • Brazil announced it would end illegal deforestation by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, but it is unclear where the country’s funding for this effort will come from. 
    • China reiterated its goal to reach peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 through a reduction in coal use from 2025-2030.

  • Biden’s foreign policy on climate change will require global buy-in to succeed. The U.N. announced global emissions need to fall about 45% by 2030 to meet the temperature limits from the Paris Climate Agreement. With 85-90% of global emissions occurring outside of the U.S., leading by example is only the first step to global change. Time will tell whether other countries will accept Biden’s call to action for tackling his emission reduction goals.

Introduction 

United States President Joe Biden hosted a two-day virtual summit of world leaders coinciding with Earth Day to address the global climate crisis. The summit, attended by leaders of 40 countries including big emitters China, India, and Russia, is the first in a string of meetings with world leaders ahead of the annual UN climate talks in November scheduled in Scotland. That meeting serves as the deadline for nearly 200 countries to update their climate pledges under the International Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. During the Earth Day summit, President Biden announced the United States seeks to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% less than the baseline year of 2005, as he seeks to put America at the forefront of worldwide efforts for combating climate change. By putting the climate crisis at the center of U.S. foreign policy, Biden hopes to set an example for leaders around the world as he asked them to take action to tackle climate change collectively. 

United States’ Pledge

On April 22nd, Earth Day, Biden announced the United States would seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% by 2030 relative to 2005 levels, roughly twice as ambitious as the previous target of a 26-28% cut by 2025 set during the Obama Administration [1]. After former president Donald Trump withdrew the country from international efforts to cut emissions, it is now President Biden’s goal to confirm climate action is again at the center of U.S. foreign policy. The United States, the world’s second-leading greenhouse gas emitter after China, is seeking to reclaim global leadership under his direction in the fight against global warming. “This is a real sea change in the degree of ambition by the U.S. government; it is pretty monumental,” said Richard Newell, president and chief executive of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank. “This is technically feasible but a substantial acceleration of existing trends” [2]. Biden’s target is a significant ratcheting up of the goal articulated by former President Barack Obama to help put the U.S. on a path to comply with the Paris agreement, which seeks to limit average global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. “The signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable and the cost of inaction keeps mounting,” Biden said. “The countries that take decisive actions now will be the ones that reap the clean energy benefits of the boom that’s coming” [1]. But the ambitious goal would require greatly accelerating the transition of U.S. power, industry, and transportation to cleaner energy sources and greater efficiency.

Figure 1: U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector [3]

Academics, business consultants, and others who study U.S. emissions say that meeting Biden’s targets would require significant changes in two key areas: how the U.S. generates electricity and how it powers the transportation sector. Transportation currently generates 29% of U.S. emissions, followed by electricity generation at 25%, and industry accounts for 23%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual inventory of greenhouse gas emissions [3]. In the power sector, renewable energy is already on the rise, fueled in part by falling costs for wind and solar farms along with subsidies and state-level mandates. In 2020, 39.5% of U.S. electricity came from zero-carbon emitting sources such as nuclear, wind, and solar, up from 29.9% a decade earlier, according to the federal Energy Information Administration [4]. Still, reaching Biden’s goal would require more substantial change. Nathan Hultman, director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, led a study examining how to halve emissions as Biden has now pledged. It concluded the easiest way to attain major reductions would be in cleaning up the electricity sector by largely eliminating coal-fired power plants if they don’t have a way to capture carbon emissions and curtailing natural-gas-fired power plants [2]. From this plan, a major question arises. As coal power plants come offline at breakneck speeds, how will the electricity sector keep up without building a lot of new gas infrastructure if it is not viable long-term? Many including James Robo, chief executive of NextEra Energy Inc., the largest power company in the U.S. by market value, see this as an opportunity to expand market reach and value while simultaneously accelerating the decarbonization of the U.S. economy. In addition, the transportation sector is also getting cleaner, thanks largely to tightening fuel economy standards and a growing push by major automakers to invest in electric vehicles. Again, the problem arises that the process is currently too slow and the speed of change must increase to meet Biden’s target. According to a new Boston Consulting Group report, the U.S. is on a path to reduce light vehicle emissions by 50% in 2035, but to accelerate that by five years will require ongoing incentives to purchase electric vehicles and reinstating a cash-for-clunkers type program on existing vehicles [5]. While American industries are already moving to address climate issues, President Biden’s ambitious target would require them to accelerate this transition. Some segments of the economy appear to be ready while others would face extraordinary challenges. In the end, it appears all industries are set to face significant new costs, and it is unclear how much would be subsidized by government tax policies or incentives since the Biden Administration has yet to detail how it will seek to reach the aggressive new goal. The U.S. climate goal marks a milestone in Biden’s broader plan to decarbonize the U.S. economy entirely by 2050 – an agenda he says can create millions of good-paying jobs, but which many say will ultimately damage the economy.

Cementing U.S. Credibility

The United States faced skepticism on climate action after the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and worked to undo regulations reducing emissions. By placing the climate at the center of U.S. foreign policy, President Biden hopes to again cement credibility to the world that the largest cumulative contributor of greenhouse gasses is ready to take action. With the stakes rising, many experts say the 2020s are a make-or-break decade in the battle to combat climate change, and Biden wishes to lead the charge. How Washington intends to reach its climate goals will be crucial to cementing U.S. credibility on the issue amid international concerns that America’s commitment to a clean energy economy can shift drastically from one administration to the next. For now, it is all about action, and so far Biden’s actions have received support from numerous big businesses. Many of these companies have recently pledged to cut their own emissions. In an open letter to President Biden, dozens of companies including McDonald’s Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and Google said a more ambitious climate target would “guide the U.S. government’s approach to more sustainable and resilient infrastructure, zero-emissions vehicles and buildings, improved agricultural practices, and durable carbon removal” [2]. With Biden’s ambitious target backed by the support of global super organizations, the United States is hoping to convince the world to join the fight against climate change, especially since the U.S. is not the only country with a credibility problem. China, the world’s biggest polluter, made a “world-leading” pledge to reach net-zero by 2060. At the same time, China keeps building and financing coal-fired power plants, the single largest source of greenhouse gases [6]. China added enough coal-fired capacity last year to cancel out a near-record amount of plant closures, according to the Global Energy Monitor [7]. While most of the countries attending Biden’s Earth Day Summit did not offer new emissions goals, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China expects its carbon emissions to peak before 2030, and the country will achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 while gradually reducing its coal use from 2025 to 2030 [8]. Even if China upholds its pledges, further action from other major emission contributing countries will still be required to successfully meet Biden’s global climate targets. 

Global Pledges

Biden asked world leaders to take action to combat climate change collectively as he announced an aggressive new goal for domestic greenhouse gas emission reductions. He pointed to actions the U.S. would take in an effort to reassert U.S. leadership and put the U.S. back to the center of the global effort to address the climate crisis after the Trump administration largely disengaged. “The signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable that the cost of inaction, it just keeps mounting. The United States isn’t waiting. We are resolving to take action, not only our federal government, but our cities and our states all across our country, small businesses, large corporations, American workers in every field,” he said [9]. In providing support, Europe wants to be “the first climate-neutral continent in the world,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during Thursday’s climate summit. “Yesterday, we agreed Europe’s first-ever Climate Law with the European Parliament and our 27 governments. With this, we write into stone the goal set out by the European Green Deal – to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050” [9]. 

Figure 2: Top Carbon Dioxide Emitting Countries in 2019 [12]

In addition, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would increase its target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40-45% of its 2005 levels by 2030, and pledged that the country would achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. “Canada understands that if you don’t have a plan to tackle climate change, then you don’t have a plan to create jobs and economic growth. Canada is a committed partner in the global fight against climate change, and together we will build a cleaner and more prosperous future for all” Trudeau said [1]. In recent years, Canada has lagged behind other G7 countries in its climate targets, in part because of its need to balance support for its oil and gas sector with a need to cut emissions.

Japan joined the group in the pledge to combat climate change when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Japan would cut its emissions 46% from 2013 levels by 2030 and added that the country would fully achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. “It will not be easy. In order to achieve the target, we will firmly implement concrete measures, while aiming to create a positive cycle that links the economy and environment and achieve strong growth,” Suga said [1]. The new emissions target may require Japan to restart more nuclear power plants while retiring coal plants, which the population may be wary of in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said South Korea will end all new public financing for overseas coal projects and will submit new emissions targets later this year. “To become carbon neutral, it is imperative for the world to scale down coal-fired power plants,” Moon said, though he noted that developing countries relying on coal “should be given due consideration and access to proper support” [2]. 

Even President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil pledged to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, one decade earlier than the country’s previous net-zero commitment. This promise may be difficult because illegal deforestation in the Amazon is primarily driven by agriculture, and Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourao recently told Reuters that the country would have to reduce illegal deforestation by up to 20% per year through 2030 in order to reach the target [8]. The practice has soared under Bolsonaro’s administration and since the new commitment is non-binding, Brazil’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, said that for Brazil to enforce its plan to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions by 2030 it will need more resources. This has raised doubt on whether or not the government will achieve the new goal. 

Unfortunately, China and India, the world’s leading consumers of coal, made no new climate commitments and merely repeated previous pledges [7]. Although these global promises give the perception that many countries are on board, actually achieving them requires action. All of the aforementioned countries, the United States included, lack an actual roadmap to achieve their emission reduction targets, and the global path to combat climate change continues to be uncertain. 

Conclusion

World leaders agreed to limit global warming to well below 2°C in the 2015 U.N. Paris Climate Agreement and set targets to remain below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Averaged over the entire globe, temperatures have increased more than 1.1°C since 1880, and since the 1980s scientists note that the rate of temperature rise has accelerated and the world is currently on track for 3°C [6]. In order to avoid this outcome and fall in line with the 2015 goals, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced global emissions need to fall about 45% by 2030, and reach “net-zero” by 2050 where emissions created are canceled out by removing planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere [10]. President Biden’s Intelligence Director, Avril Haines, said with the new U.S. target, enhanced commitments from Japan and Canada, and prior targets from the European Union and Britain, countries accounting for more than half the world’s economy were now committed to reductions for achieving the 1.5°C goal. The bigger problem is, this is not where the majority of energy consumption and therefore climate-warming pollution will come from before mid-century. In reality, it would make little difference in the global climate change fight if the U.S. and its allies reduced its emissions to zero. “[President Biden] knows Paris [climate accord] alone is not enough, not when almost 90% of all of the planet’s global emissions come from outside of U.S. borders. We could go to zero tomorrow and the problem isn’t solved” noted one of the president’s two climate czars, John Kerry [11]. Climate change is a global issue, and under Trump, the United States removed itself from a united international effort to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement to focus efforts domestically. What Biden has set out to do is become the gold standard of climate policy and lead by example. Even if Biden is able to put the U.S. on an irreversible path to meet his climate policy, more countries need to participate to effectively create global change. Only time will tell if the world actually adheres to the goals being set and goes about tackling their ambitious efforts to build a cleaner world. 

References 

[1] https://www.axios.com/biden-climate-summit-emissions-targets-87c0d95a-72b0-4f74-a98d-c7061281f73a.html 

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/bidens-pledge-to-slash-emissions-would-require-big-u-s-changes-11619184478 

[3] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2021-04/documents/us-ghg-inventory-2021-main-text.pdf 

[4] https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-in-the-us-generation-capacity-and-sales.php 

[5] https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2021/why-evs-need-to-accelerate-their-market-penetration 

[6] https://www.voanews.com/usa/bidens-earth-day-summit-us-coming-out-party-climate-change 

[7] https://globalenergymonitor.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/BoomAndBust_2021_final.pdf  

[8] https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/us-pledges-halve-its-emissions-by-2030-renewed-climate-fight-2021-04-22/ 

[9] https://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/biden-climate-change-summit-04-22-22/index.html 

[10] https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/ 

[11] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55829189 

[12] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions

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