The election of President Joe Biden brought a seismic shift in U.S. government policy toward climate change. In addition to signalling greater domestic action on the issue, Biden’s victory also raised hopes that on the international stage the U.S. would play a more active role.
November’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) is an opportunity to show just how differently the new administration will act on climate change in contrast to its predecessor.
Under Trump, one might have seen the U.S. government as either indifferent or hostile to action on climate change. For the previous four years, the challenge seemed to be getting the White House to engage in ways that were not excuses to promote so-called clean coal. For Biden, the challenge is not to be involved but to show America can deliver results.
Going into the conference some participants may question, based on past actions, just how committed the U.S. is to follow through with its promises on climate change. Showing that the government will live up to its word both now and in the future on climate change could be one of the greatest tests the new administration faces internationally.
Get your own house in order
One way to build confidence is to show domestic progress on the issues.
At our recent webinar looking at COP26 and the U.S. role at the conference, Attorney Susan Biniaz who is part of Secretary Kerry’s Climate Team discussed how the administration has tried to do this. She spoke of how Biden’s early Executive Orders were an attempt to show other nations that the U.S. is serious about this problem. In addition, Biniaz talked about the need for America to take the lead and raise ambitions among nations in the fight against climate change so that we go beyond the conditions of the Paris Agreement.
There are opportunities for the administration to further build international confidence. The areas where that may happen include funding for electric vehicles and renewable energy, improving disclosure requirements, financial help to developing nations, and most importantly from an international perspective handling China.
Given that promoting electric vehicles and renewable energy will be a focus of COP26, if the White House can deliver on an infrastructure program that includes investments in clean energy and electric vehicles that are similar to what was in the American Jobs Plan it would give the US increased credibility. However, if legislation were to remain bogged down in Congress it would likely raise doubts about America’s capacity to act now and in the future. As of publication the future of the infrastructure bill remains unresolved.
Fortunately, for Biden not all signs of progress require legislative approval. The Executive Branch does have the authority to act on areas such as rule making and enforcement. Through that avenue, the U.S. can demonstrate its commitment to improving reporting requirements.
Currently, the administration is using the regulatory power of the Securities Exchange Commission and the Treasury Department to create uniform reporting standards so investors can make clear comparisons and help prevent company greenwashing. These actions put America in line with European efforts on these fronts. With these in place by November there would likely be an increased momentum for international action on reporting standards.
Recently, world leaders have spoken of the need for wealthier countries to help nations in the developing world take part in the energy transition adapt to problems brought by climate change. The goal being discussed is hitting $100 billion in financial support. To increase aid Boris Johnson has discussed creating a “Marshall Plan” for nations to spend billions on renewable energy, technical assistance, and other climate-facing projects in developing nations. Media accounts described the details of the plan as vague.
When the White House hosted heads of state for an international climate summit it announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will release a new Climate Change Strategy at COP26 and pledged that:
The United States intends to double, by 2024, our annual public climate finance to developing countries relative to the average level during the second half of the Obama-Biden Administration (FY 2013-2016). As part of this goal, the United States intends to triple our adaptation finance by 2024.
Despite the rhetoric, Biden’s own recent budget proposal fell short of the Obama White House’s commitment for U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which was set up to provide financial aid to poorer nations that need to adapt to the effects of climate change. Biden’s budget had $1.2 billion for the climate fund.
When asked about funding short falls, according to a recent piece in Politico, government officials told reporters that the administration’s proposal will use other programs and authorities, such as development finance, to fund climate projects in developing countries.
Like with funding for electric vehicles and renewables, whether the Biden Administration can put money behind its rhetoric will help determine its effectiveness at marshalling international action at COP26 and beyond.
Today China, Tomorrow the COP
Given that China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, being able to engage them effectively is critical to any climate effort. As Vice President, Biden claimed he raised the idea of a bilateral accord with China, after Xi ascended to the Presidency, even though then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s team were the ones who did the actual negotiating.
It was that outreach to China, and the agreement reached between the two global powers in 2014, that set the stage for the COP to be successful in 2015 and create the Paris Climate Agreement. Earlier this year the nations issued a statement reaffirming their desire to work together on cutting carbon emissions.
Although this conference will not produce an agreement, and relations between the two superpowers have cooled since the Paris Agreement was signed, experts believe if the U.S. can make progress with China in the run up to Glasgow it is likely to give the conference momentum and bolster US leadership credentials. Potential areas of work could include pushing China to accelerate its carbon neutral target from 2060 to 2050.
The Place on the Global Stage
For Biden, fulfilling his campaign commitments on climate change, and refuting the actions of the previous administration, could be seen as part of a larger pattern of presidential behavior. Whatever their domestic priorities, for many U.S. Presidents how successfully they do, or do not, handle global challenges can help define their term in office for generations to come.
Given the scope and implications of the challenge climate change represents it is likely Biden’s actions domestically and internationally will be intertwined, with success in one area feeding into the other. COP26 could be the next big chance to show if the U.S. will follow through on its commitment and make sure it has a lasting impact.