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Climate deal is a ‘baby step,’ but world needs bigger action, diplomats say

An aerial view of a strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and a lagoon in Funafuti, Tuvalu. The low-lying South Pacific island nation of about 11,000 people has been classified as "extremely vulnerable" to climate change by the United Nations Development Program. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Even as Democrats work to deliver the biggest-ever U.S. climate investment in a new spending package, many officials and activists overseas described the deal as falling short of the nation’s obligation to help other countries and galvanize global action to avert dangerous warming.

The Inflation Reduction Act would be a major boost for climate-friendly efforts inside the United States — a shift of unprecedented proportions. But it would do little to support vulnerable nations around the world that have been pleading for years that wealthy nations help them prepare for a warming world. It also wouldn’t cut America’s carbon emissions as much as President Biden has promised.

More than one climate diplomat used the word “minimum” in describing the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate measures, which analysts predict would reduce U.S. emissions by about 40 percent by the end of the decade compared to 2005 levels. The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that it would devote about $385 billion toward combating climate change and encouraging energy production.

“It’s a step forward,” said Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, a coalition of nonprofit groups that advocates for emissions reductions, clean energy policy and environmental justice. “But the international community would call it a baby step when we actually need a leap.”

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Singh, who is based in New Delhi, pointed out that the United States is the world’s biggest historical emitter, responsible for more than 20 percent of all greenhouse gases generated since 1850. It is also the world’s biggest economy, which means it has more capacity than any other nation to make the investments needed to shift away from fossil fuels.

According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nations must roughly halve emissions by 2030 to have an even-shot at limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — a threshold that scientists say would save millions of lives in vulnerable communities and avoid a dangerous escalation of climate disasters.

To meet this goal, the United States last year pledged to cut its planet-warming pollution to 52 percent below 2005 levels. Further executive action and state-level policies would be required to make up the shortfall between Biden’s pledge and what could be accomplished through legislation.

“This will surely help raise the U.S. credibility on the international stage and support its active international diplomacy,” said a senior European climate official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments of the consequences of the deal. “If passed it could help with the politics at an important moment” ahead of a new round of climate negotiations in Egypt this fall.

“But you can’t get a major economy to net zero without regulation. And many would want to see more funding for international climate finance, where U.S. shortfalls have already taken the world off-course from the $100 billion goal,” the official said.

Nor does the legislation provide funding to assist vulnerable countries already struggling with extreme heat, persistent drought, rising sea levels and an onslaught of other climate impacts — despite multiple promises that the United States would do so.

In remarks Wednesday, Biden called the Inflation Reduction Act a “huge step forward” that would help the United States meet its global climate commitments — though he noted it falls short of the $555 billion package he had proposed ahead of the Glasgow climate talks last fall.

The United States has only delivered $1 billion of a $3 billion pledge to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund made under former president Barack Obama. Last fall Biden pledged to quadruple that amount, to $11.4 billion, but Congress has yet to appropriate that additional money.

And although Biden sought about $11 billion for international climate finance in his most recent budget request, it’s not clear that Congress will allocate those funds.

“Comprehensive climate action means not only reducing emissions domestically but also providing technology and financial support so we as a global community are able to come out of the crisis,” Singh said. “No one is safe until everyone safe. That’s the kind of situation we are in.”

David Waskow, director of international climate action at the World Resources Institute, said there were some provisions that will give U.S. negotiators more leverage at U.N. climate talks in Egypt this fall as they urge other countries to bolster their own ambitions. He was especially heartened by the $1.5 billion Methane Emissions Reduction Program, which would incentivize oil and gas companies to curb their emissions of the potent planet-warming gas.

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Last year, the United States helped lead a coalition of more than 100 countries promising to cut methane 30 percent by 2030. But analyses show that methane emissions in key fossil-fuel-producing areas, such as the Permian Basin, have soared in the months since that pledge.

This program, along with initiatives to curb pollution from agriculture, will add “real momentum” to efforts to stop emissions of a gas whose immediate climate warming power is 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, Waskow said.

Still, others argued the bill doesn’t do as much as it could.

Singh pointed to provisions in the climate deal that would promote continued investments in fossil fuels, such as a requirement that the federal government allow for more oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and other major research groups have said that the world cannot afford to develop new fossil fuel infrastructure to have a hope of meeting the 1.5 degree Celsius goal.

U.S. policy “sets the tone for the kind of transition we need to make,” Singh said. By promoting further oil and gas projects, “to me it’s still showing a halfhearted leadership on climate action.”

But some experts said they were just happy for a win.

“Progress on a U.S. climate package is welcome news," Conrod Hunte, a diplomat from Antigua & Barbuda and a lead negotiator for a group of small island states that work together on international climate policy, said in an email. He added that the group hopes to see the United States and "other major emitters demonstrate their leadership with urgent action in the climate space to reduce CO2 or decarbonize.”

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Carlos Fuller, a longtime negotiator at global climate talks and Permanent Representative of Belize to the United Nations, said in a message to The Washington Post that it was “certainly a big step forward, especially after the disappointing Supreme Court ruling against the EPA.”

Fuller lamented that the bill “includes new oil drilling” but said the "support to the auto industry for e-mobility is great, as this will trickle down to those countries which import U.S. vehicles.”

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“One could ask for more, one could always do more,” said Anders Levermann, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. But he said he thought it was a major step.

“The climate deal as it’s put out, as I’ve read it, it’s trying to induce structural change,” Levermann said. “If the U.S. goes toward carbon neutrality, then the rest of the world won’t be able to ignore that.”

And as the world looks at Biden’s declining polling numbers, many fear that whatever the United States does now could easily be unraveled if Republicans win the White House in 2024. Solar panels may not be uninstalled in that scenario, but a U.S. president who is hostile to international climate talks would be a major setback to the broader effort to get the world’s biggest polluters — including China and India — to agree to intensify their efforts to reduce their emissions.

“Getting a deal done in Washington is the minimum of what U.S. has to do,” said a different senior European diplomat involved in climate negotiations.

“I don’t expect champagne popping,” the diplomat said. “Maybe a sigh of relief that there will be some climate action in the U.S. for the next two years. But with another change of administration looming over the horizon, it’s hard to talk about restoring credibility.”

Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

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