The U.S. aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 as part of its new commitment to the Paris climate agreement, President Joe Biden announced Thursday.
Biden made the pledge, called the "nationally determined contribution," while speaking at a two-day virtual climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders Thursday morning. Biden rejoined the 2015 climate pact in February, reversing a decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the global coalition to curb carbon emissions.
"These steps will set America on a path of net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050," Biden said in remarks from the White House. "But the truth is, America represents less than 50 percent of the world's emissions. No nation can solve this crisis on our own, as I know you all fully understand."
The president emphasized that scientists say the current decade will be decisive for addressing the climate crisis.
"This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis," Biden said, adding, "We can't resign ourselves to that future. We have to take action on this, and this summit is our first step on the road we'll travel together."
U.S. emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases plunged last year, but that was an anomaly owing to the coronavirus pandemic, which put the brakes on large segments of the economy. As the country rebounds, emissions are expected to rise once again, and the Biden administration is racing to find ways to put the U.S. on track to meet even more ambitious targets that scientists say are needed to avert the worst effects of global warming.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday that Biden's agenda for the virtual climate summit “reportedly is to encourage them to expand their country's Paris climate agreement commitments to meet even more ambitious emissions goals.”
“The problem, of course, which our colleagues no doubt remember is the hollowed commitments the countries made back in 2015 carry no serious means for enforcement,” he continued in remarks on the Senate floor.
“But many of the signatories within the supposed deal have largely ignored their stated commitments and continue to emit with reckless abandon. As the Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry once lamented, quote, most countries are not getting the job done and living up to Paris, end quote. China, for example, has just kept emitting more and done it shamelessly.”
The Biden administration has been under immense pressure from environmental groups and climate scientists to commit to an emissions cut of at least 50 percent, compared to 2005 levels. Cutting emissions in half globally by 2030 is seen as necessary if the world is to meet U.N. goals to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The most ambitious emissions-cutting goal the U.S. has set to date, Biden's expected pledge of a cut of 50 percent to 52 percent, is still likely to face criticism from environmental groups that say it falls short of restoring the U.S. to a position of leadership.
The European Union, for example, has pledged at least a 55 percent cut by 2030, while the U.K. has promised 68 percent by 2030 and a whopping 78 percent by 2035.
The U.S. is pressing the world's largest emitters, all of whom were invited to the summit, to make equally ambitious cuts. But after Trump abandoned the Paris Agreement, other countries are closely scrutinizing U.S. actions to see whether Washington will back up its tough talk with action and whether that action will be politically durable.
China's President Xi Jinping, the first world leader to speak at the summit, reaffirmed that his country aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and would, he said, "strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030." The commitments are not a new pledge, but are seen as ambitious for China, which is the world's biggest carbon emitter. Still, China's targets fall behind those of other developed nations.
Several heads of state urged countries to accelerate their ambitions to reduce emissions.
“We need to move more quickly to implement commitments for 2030," France's President Emmanuel Macron said. "Basically, 2030 is the new 2050."
Without making any concrete commitments in his speech at the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he set the goal of significantly limiting the volume of net emissions in Russia by 2050 in his state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday.
“The fate of our entire planet, the development prospects of each country, the well-being and quality of life of people largely depend on the success of these efforts,” Putin said of international efforts to tackle climate change.
He said that compared to 1990, Russia has reduced greenhouse gas emissions to a greater extent than many other countries, going from 3.1 billion tons of CO2 to 1.6 billion tons.
Putin said it’s not enough just to talk about new emission volumes, but nations must deal with the absorption of carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere, adding that Russia makes, “a colossal contribution” to the absorption of global emissions, both its own and those of others, due to the absorbing capacity of its ecosystems.
He also called for the reduction of methane emissions, saying each ton creates a greenhouse effect 25–28 times greater than a ton of CO2.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been heavily criticized for his management of the Amazon rainforest, committed to eliminating illegal deforestation in the country by 2030 and pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Bolsonaro's statements Thursday mark a departure from his previous stance on climate change. While campaigning for the presidency in 2018, Bolsonaro said that, like Trump, he would withdraw from the Paris Agreement and he often criticized what he considered excessive policing of the country's forests.
Many leaders praised the U.S. for rejoining the Paris Agreement, noting the difference between Biden's actions on climate change compared to his predecessor. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called it, "a complete change."
"I'm delighted to see that the United States is back to work together with us in climate politics, because there can be no doubt about the world needing your contribution," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, adding that Biden's commitments are sending an "important message to the international community."
During the virtual summit, Biden also announced a new international climate finance plan that he said would offer a coordinated way to fund the global response. He argued the initiative will spur the private sector to contribute to climate solutions both in developing nations and in the U.S.
"Good ideas and good intentions are not good enough," Biden said. "We need to ensure that the financing will be there, both public and private, to meet the moment on climate change, and to help us seize the opportunity for good jobs, strong economies and a more secure world."
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen highlighted the administration's $1.2 billion request for the green climate fund and $485 million to fund multilateral climate initiatives. She added that her department is focused on ways to mobilize private investments to create a greener global economy.
Biden administration officials told reporters in a briefing before the announcement that the U.S. will also consider a "carbon border adjustment," better known as a carbon tariff, in which the U.S. would tax imports from countries that don't have similar emissions controls. Although the U.S. trade representative's office under Biden has floated the idea before, others in the administration, including climate envoy John Kerry, have warned against it.
The previous U.S. pledge for the Paris Agreement, set by President Barack Obama before Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal, was a cut of 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025. As part of the Paris accord, which is not legally binding, countries are supposed to regularly update their pledges, with 2030 goals due ahead of a U.N. climate summit in November in Scotland.
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Biden, meanwhile, has set an overarching goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Yet his own administration has chided other countries for setting impressive-sounding goals for decades in the future while doing little in the short term to actually change any behavior.
Under pressure to spell out how it will achieve the intended cuts, the White House argued that it can achieve a 50 percent cut by the end of the decade by targeting the biggest-emitting sectors, including zeroing out emissions from power plants by 2035, boosting energy efficiency for homes and businesses, cutting tailpipe emissions through regulations and incentives for electric vehicles, and expanding "carbon sinks," like forests and agriculture.
"We see multiple paths to reaching this goal," an administration official said.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris opened the climate summit Thursday, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Kerry also participating. World leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, attended virtually.