World pushes ahead with climate action as U.S. remains in limbo

The United States government will be missing from a global climate summit for the first time next month, and the timing couldn’t be more inconvenient for other world leaders.

They are desperate to commence work with the incoming Biden administration, which is promising the most ambitious climate change policies of any incoming American administration, including a "100 percent clean energy economy” and “net-zero emissions no later than 2050."

But when dozens of national leaders gather online Dec. 12, at a summit organized by the U.K. government to press ahead with a new and more onerous stage of the Paris climate agreement, the U.S. won’t be at the table: The Trump administration has left the agreement, while President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team can’t attend.

That dynamic left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson bragging to the House of Commons about Biden’s enthusiasm for a climate summit more than a year away — “it was extremely exciting to talk to President-elect Biden about what he wants to do with the COP26 summit next year,” he said last week — though it leaves Johnson empty-handed for his Dec. 12 event.

With national government invitations restricted to sitting leaders willing to present new climate commitments, summit organizers plan to reserve several speaking slots for local and state government and nonprofit speakers, allowing them to include Democratic representatives aligned with Biden.


“We’re inviting all countries to come and make ambitious climate change commitments including referencing commitments they’ve made during the course of the year,” COP26 envoy John Murton told POLITICO’s EU Confidential podcast. The summit would also be an occasion for businesses, cities and regional governments to announce new pledges.

“We’ve seen several U.S. states make commitments to net zero over the last six months,” Murton said.

Two British officials told POLITICO that after discussions last week between former Secretary of State John Kerry, a Biden ally in contention for a climate envoy role in the new administration, and Alok Sharma, the British minister in charge of the Dec. 12 summit, the short list includes: Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former Environmental Protection Authority Administrator Gina McCarthy, and Energy Innovation CEO Hal Harvey. A decision on the speaking lineup — which needs to be signed off by both the British and French governments — is expected later this week.

Although Biden’s election brings new energy to global climate efforts, the world isn’t waiting for the Biden administration to direct the next stage of global climate diplomacy. Instead, summit organizers are presenting China and the EU with their biggest climate tests yet.

While both China and the EU have pledged to cut emissions to net zero — the EU by 2050 and China by 2060 — getting there requires more specific medium-term commitments, and announcing at least some of those efforts is a requirement of Dec. 12 summit organizers.

Those commitments would put the EU and China even further in front of U.S. policy, based on little more than the hope that the incoming Biden administration will live up to its climate promises.

Under pressure from summit organizers — who have banned national leaders from using speaking slots to recycle outdated climate commitments — EU leaders will meet the day before the global event in an effort to agree to deeper emissions cuts by 2030. Summit organizers expect leaders to explain their “net-zero emission” strategies, announce new climate finance commitments or “ambitious” plans for adapting to climate change that cannot be avoided, according to a document circulated to governments by the U.K. Cabinet Office obtained by POLITICO.

“It’s one thing to make a long-term emissions reduction target like net-zero. It’s another thing to actually work out what … policymakers have to do today, next week, next year, in the next five years, in order to achieve that target. So that’s quite a long process of working back from the target that you’ve set yourself,” Murton said. Ahead of the summit, U.K. officials will “work through with Chinese colleagues … what does a 2060 target mean,” he said, adding organizers expected China to restate its commitment to slash emissions to net zero.

The timing of the Dec. 12 summit puts Biden in the position of having to gather global leaders again next year to show U.S. commitment after President Donald Trump obliterated trust in America by ditching the Paris accord.

That could come in the form of a global summit within Biden’s first 100 days in office, or by placing climate change at the top of the agenda of G-7 and G-20 summits. On phone calls with roughly a dozen leaders in recent days, Biden has positioned climate change as a top priority for joint action in 2021.

The Biden transition team has not released details of its promised climate summit, but Biden allies say the purpose of the event would be to show the U.S. is committing to using economic recovery from Covid-19 to address climate issues, “elevating issues on the global stage in a way that the world has clearly been missing the last four years,” said Elan Strait, a former Obama administration State Department official now at WWF.

The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

Biden’s climate credibility challenge

The incoming Biden administration faces a credibility challenge that won’t be met simply by rejoining the Paris climate agreement — as Biden has promised on the first day of his administration.

While leaders around the world may trust Biden’s intentions, they will have to make their own plans not knowing if he can deliver his $2 trillion dollar clean energy campaign plan and other critical policies to cut American emissions in face of a deeply divided Congress.

European officials warn the world’s climate goal posts have shifted since Biden last held office. “We will have tough discussions with the new administration in the U.S.,” said Bas Eickhout, a senior lawmaker from the Green party in the European Parliament. He said reentry into the Paris accords “will give huge impetus to others,” but he expects Biden to go beyond the Obama administration’s promise to cut emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025.

Nowhere has American trustworthiness been more sorely bruised than in Beijing: It was a bilateral pact with the Chinese that laid the groundwork for the 2015 Paris Agreement, and Trump’s reversal tore that up.

Instead of filling the global climate leadership vacuum left by the U.S., China reverted to clinging to its status as a low-income country to defend its right to develop, even at a high environmental price.

Then, in September, China surprised the world and decided to go solo with a pledge to cut emissions to net zero by 2060. If China uses the British government’s request for “bold” new pledges for the next decade at the Dec. 12 event to announce its interim goals, that may preempt “a U.S. competitive or confrontational climate narrative towards China” under Biden, said Li Shuo, a policy expert with Greenpeace East Asia.

Still, Biden’s election puts “a tailwind at the backs of the countries organizing” climate summits, said Alden Meyer, a veteran of global climate negotiations.

John E. Morton, an Obama-era climate official now with Pollination, a climate change advisory and investment firm, is confident of a quick resumption of America’s global climate links.

“Many of the ties between European leaders and incoming Biden senior ranks have remained strong. They don’t require much reactivation energy. Those are relationships and dialogues that have continued over the last four years. They will pick up in advance of where they left off,” Morton said.

The Biden administration also will attempt to weave its aggressive climate stance into trade agreements. Biden and other Democrats want to use U.S. trade policy to fight climate change, conditioning new trade deals on partners’ climate commitments and placing tariffs on high-carbon imports.

Domestically, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters Thursday that the Biden administration “could make the biggest change ever about resetting how the federal government uses its money,” as part of its climate efforts. She emphasized sprinkling climate initiatives across all federal departments, rather than concentrating it among agencies like the EPA, and establishing climate goals on grants and other dollars distributed to states.

The limits of Biden’s presidential power may become all too clear in the face of a slim Democratic majority in the House and possibly a Republican-controlled Senate.

“[W]ithout a Democratic Senate, Biden would be hard pressed to pledge the level of U.S. ambition that’s needed and that other countries will expect,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “Executive powers alone won’t be enough, so he’ll have to lean more heavily on state, city and corporate action.”

Charlie Cooper contributed to this report from London.

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