Summit highlights formidable challenges to climate action

Biden celebrates Earth Day by announcing goal to cut US emissions

German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes part in the virtual international climate summit with President Joe Biden. (Kay Nietfeld/Getty Images/Pool)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes part in the virtual international climate summit with President Joe Biden. (Kay Nietfeld/Getty Images/Pool)
Posted April 22, 2021 at 5:38pm

President Joe Biden’s new target for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions drew mixed reactions from advocates and lawmakers alike, underscoring the difficult task ahead as his administration tries to wean the country and the rest of the world off of fossil fuels at a pace that avoids the worst impacts of climate change.

Biden celebrated Earth Day by kicking off a two-day virtual climate summit and announcing a new goal to cut U.S. emissions 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, en route to a net-zero economy by mid-century. A net-zero economy is one that eliminates as much greenhouse gas pollution as it produces.

Biden noted that more than 85 percent of the world’s emissions still come from other countries, though the majority of emissions come from a few dozen industrialized nations. The United States is the largest historical emitter and currently the second-largest behind China.

“All of us, and particularly those of us who represent the world's largest economies, we have to step up,” Biden said.

But it remains to be seen whether Biden can forge the kind of unity at home and abroad required to make big changes.

[10 issues to watch at the White House climate summit]

He cited administration proposals to spend billions ramping up support for electric vehicles, patching leaky oil and gas wells and improving transmission lines that will carry electricity from renewable sources.

Those proposals have been hailed by key leaders of his own party and some environmental groups.

But many Republican lawmakers remain skeptical of his energy policies. In particular, they have criticized moves such as canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and pausing new oil and gas leases on federal lands, saying that approach undermines U.S. energy independence and costs jobs.

At the same time, at least some advocates and lawmakers within his own Democratic ranks were underwhelmed by the new targets.

Calls for more aggressive action

While the new target doubles the country’s Obama-era pledges, it falls short of what’s needed, said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice program.

Su called for at least a 70 percent reduction by 2030.

“Combating the climate emergency at home also requires transforming our economy by moving immediately to end the fossil fuel era and create a renewable and anti-racist energy system that advances justice first,” Su said in a statement.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., offered tepid support for the White House pledge, saying the administration should include in its national target firm goals to lower the emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 84 percent more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

“The Biden administration inherited four years of dust and denialism on climate action — but that era is over,” Markey said. “Immediate methane reductions are feasible using existing technology and regulatory powers,” he said.

Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., are the lead sponsors of a legislative blueprint to decarbonize the country known as the Green New Deal. They also introduced bills this week to create a Civilian Climate Corps, a federal works program reminiscent of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and its government employment efforts.

[Though never adopted, the ‘Green New Deal’ left its mark]

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday the Senate would take up a legislative maneuver to reinstate methane regulations that were rolled back when Donald Trump was president.

“Methane gets less attention than its big bad brother, carbon dioxide, but in truth methane is like carbon dioxide on steroids,” Schumer said. “Many of the things we need to do to reduce methane emissions are fairly cheap and cost-effective, like plugging leaks in fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said. “So this makes common sense, especially when our globe is at risk.”

Momentum seen

Future U.S. administrations could reverse course or other leading emitters such as China could fail to live up to their pledges. But administration officials highlighted the momentum already present in the marketplace.

The head of the American Petroleum Institute, the leading oil-and-gas lobby in Washington, which this year endorsed a price on carbon emissions and backs methane-reduction rules, said the group supports the goals of the Paris deal.

“With a transparent price on carbon and innovation, we can make measurable climate progress within this decade without hurting America’s middle class, jeopardizing U.S. national security, and undermining economic recovery,” said Mike Sommers, president and CEO of API.

Transportation is the biggest greenhouse gas-emitting sector in the U.S., and decarbonizing passenger vehicles and expanding public transportation will be vital to meeting the goals Biden set Thursday.

At a separate news conference at Washington's Union Station on Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy; and Cathy Zoi, the CEO of electric charging company EVgo, promoted the administration's proposed expansion of electric vehicle stations.

They allow drivers to get about 150 miles worth of range in 15 minutes, Zoi said, adding that “fast-charging stations” like those her company has installed at Union Station will be critical for people who don’t have easy access to charging spots.

“This is really important for the 30 percent of Americans who don't have access to home charging, for the rideshare drivers and taxi drivers that are electrifying who need to charge quickly and for the rising number of fleets in America they're electrifying,” Zoi said.

Buttigieg said the administration’s $2 trillion public works proposal includes grant programs for state governments and companies to build charging stations nationwide.

“We're proposing a $15 billion investment that will help build up a national network of 500,000 charging stations across America's highways and roads, and at transit centers like Union Station,” McCarthy said.

During the summit, the administration also sought to highlight how it’s looking at movement beyond the national level with a breakout session focused on actions by cities, states and tribal communities.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan hosted a panel with leaders ranging from the mayor of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans to representatives of indigenous people in the Amazon.

Away from the summit itself, climate activist Greta Thunberg testified via video at a House hearing focused on subsidies for fossil fuel companies, urging lawmakers to “act on the science and to use your common sense.”

“It is the year 2021, the fact that we are still having this discussion and even more that we are still subsidizing fossil fuels directly or indirectly using taxpayer money is a disgrace,” Thunberg said. “It is a clear proof that we have not understood the climate emergency at all.”

U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry said the theme of this week’s summit is “raising ambition.” He said pledges highlighted at the conference reflect that many countries are taking action putting them on track to hold the global average temperature increase to the key level of 1.5 degrees Celsius. But he agreed there’s more work ahead.

He said the summit is meant to create a foundation for global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

“We are not where we need to be, and the science is going to document that increasingly over the course of the next months,” Kerry said. “So, this is the beginning of building blocks heading towards Glasgow and Glasgow will be what many of us think is the last best hope to be able to get the world on track to do what we need to do.”