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Biden ushers in a new era of climate geopolitics

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President Biden has set ambitious benchmarks for the United States' role in combatting climate change. Here’s how the administration plans to do it. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

If former president Donald Trump were still in the White House, none of this would be happening. Trump was wholly indifferent to the scientific consensus around a warming planet, allergic to multilateral diplomacy, and insisted throughout that efforts to mitigate climate change were not in the U.S. national interest.

But elections have consequences, and President Biden took the first step Thursday to kick-start a new era of climate-centered geopolitics. At a virtual summit hosted by the White House, he and some three dozen world leaders are making new pledges and announcing new initiatives in the fight against climate change. “This is a moral imperative, an economic imperative, a moment of peril but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities,” Biden said. “Time is short, but I believe we can do this.”

To that end, the Biden administration said it would slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by the end of the decade. The pledge “represents a near-doubling of the target that the nation committed to under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, when Barack Obama vowed to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent compared with 2005 levels,” my colleagues reported. His plan envisions a future driven by investment in green technologies and an irrevocable shift from fossil fuels.

Biden also committed the United States to an international finance plan aimed at helping fund the decarbonization efforts of developing economies. A long-standing contention of officials and activists elsewhere has been that the major powers of the West, which have historically contributed the most to the blanket of greenhouse gases shrouding the atmosphere, should do more to redress that legacy.

Trump balked at that logic; the Biden administration is, to an extent, embracing it. “We hear people talk about this being existential,” said former secretary of state John F. Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate, in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday. “For many people on the planet, it already is. But we’re not behaving internationally like it is, in fact, an existential challenge.”

Numerous leaders attending Biden’s summit announced updated commitments. Japan raised its emissions reduction target to a 46 percent cut, compared with 2013 levels, by 2030. Britain, the host of a major U.N. climate summit in Glasgow this November, said it would cut emissions by 78 percent by 2035, compared with 1990 levels. The European Union announced a 55 percent cut by 2030, also set against 1990 levels.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said that his country, the world’s largest emitter, would phase down coal consumption in the second half of this decade. Climate policy watchers were quietly pleased with the singling out of coal in Xi’s remarks. Ahead of the summit, Kerry and Chinese interlocutors released a joint statement affirming both countries’ intention to keep the rise in global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels and possibly to keep the rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius — a target scientists believe must be met to stave off a planetary emergency in the coming decades.

Given the other tensions between the world’s two biggest economies, climate action may offer at least one space for meaningful dialogue. But new challenges await, from technological competition to the prospect of the European Union taking a more aggressive approach, with a proposed levy on “high carbon” imports from countries with laxer climate rules than the 27-member bloc. U.S. officials are reportedly pushing against such a tax, both out of concern for their own companies as well as fears that it could jeopardize climate diplomacy with major emitters such as India, Brazil and China.

One avenue of cooperation could be in helping the decarbonization of poorer countries. “The Chinese government is unlikely to accept external hectoring about its domestic coal consumption, least of all from America,” observed Gillian Tett of the Financial Times. “But there might be room for some U.S.-China dialogue around the energy transition in the wider developing world, particularly if multilateral lenders engage in some clever financial footwork.”

Biden’s climate summit also featured a number of conspicuous laggards. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — who once gleefully brought a chunk of coal into his country’s Parliament — said his right-wing government would not increase its planned emissions reductions. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for a time Trump’s climate-skeptic ally in the Western Hemisphere, offered a more conciliatory tone, as my colleagues reported. He pledged to eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030 — though a large part of Bolsonaro’s scheme would require funds from abroad, especially the United States, to help pay for more sustainable livelihoods for tens of millions of Brazilians living in a region long described as the lungs of the world.

Myriad critics expressed their doubts over Bolsonaro’s sincerity. “It looked like another person speaking, in comparison with the politician who has promoted the dismantling of the instruments of environmental protection throughout his governance,” political reporter Igor Gielow wrote for Folha newspaper.

Bolsonaro “has demonstrated a total disregard for the environmental agenda and he hasn’t done anything to suggest he has any intention of changing his behavior,” João Doria, the governor of São Paulo state and a political rival, told Time magazine earlier this week.

Though Biden hopes to reassert U.S. climate leadership on the world stage, he still faces a steep challenge in his backyard. Republicans in Congress will seek to stymie new green legislation, while the fossil fuel industry’s lobbyists in Washington are already making the case that the Biden agenda means a loss of U.S. jobs and rising prices for the American consumer.

Kerry and other Biden officials contend that environmental reform is inexorable and that both the private sector and governments in the coming years will be too invested in the energy transition to see any incentive in reversing course. Climate-focused politics are coming to the fore in much of the West; in Germany, polls show that the next government could be led by the Greens.

Climate reporter Kate Aronoff argued in the New York Times that while the American public is increasingly supportive of the Democratic climate agenda, the Washington establishment still has to unwind a long legacy of boosting the fossil fuel industry abroad, not just at home. “While polling from Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, shows that a Green New Deal and climate-smart trade policy are popular among voters,” she wrote, “any change to foreign policy at the scale this crisis demands must survive an all-out assault from the fossil fuel industry, the lawmakers it funds and a foreign-policy establishment hellbent on placing America firmly back on top of its beloved rules-based international order. These fights are unavoidable and worth having.”

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