Biden’s climate change summit

Despite tensions, the world’s two biggest carbon polluters, the US and China, agree to work together to combat climate change

Photo by Dlritter on FreeImages.

3 minute read — By Camilla Foster

Coinciding with Earth Day, President Biden invited 40 world leaders to convene in a virtual climate summit in an effort to combat climate change collectively. Biden committed the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%-52% below its 2005 emission levels come 2030. This percentage doubles the country’s previous commitment and will significantly help limit the global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C below pre-industrial levels.

Additionally, Biden pledged to put the US on track to reach a zero-emissions electricity sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050. This is a significant break-through, with the previous administration under President Trump pulling the country from the Paris Climate Accord and dismantling environmental regulations. The new president seems to be committed to making climate change a priority.

US and China are by a landslide the world’s largest carbon polluters, so their keen participation is a huge triumph for the battle against climate change. Before the summit, the two states’ special envoys for climate change, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, met in Shanghai, where they committed to cooperating with each other on tackling the issue despite ongoing tensions between the two countries. They discussed enhancing their respective action and cooperating in multilateral processes such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement. Potential policies and technologies to de-carbonise industry and power, increased deployment of renewable energy, as well as adopting green and climate resilient agriculture were also talked about.

The two countries remain rivals on issues like trade, human rights, intellectual property and technology. However, both countries have stated that they will fight climate change “with the seriousness and urgency it demands”, offering a small break in the constant feud. Despite this, Xei has warned that the climate change issue should not be a “bargaining chip for geopolitics’ or an “excuse for trade barriers”, highlighting some remaining hostility.

A mixture of contributions and pledges were made at the summit. Three governments and nine companies announced a LEAF coalition in an effort to mobilise at least $1 billion this year alone for large-scale forest protection and sustainable development. South Korean president, Moon Jaein, pledged to end public financing of coal-fired power plants overseas, but is yet to set a revised 2030 target. Chinese president, Xi Jinping, pledged to limit the use of coal over the next five years while promoting greener investments through its Belt and Road Initiative. Brazil pledged to go climate neutral by 2050 and to decrease deforestation by 2030. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stated that Europe holds the aspiration to be the first climate-neutral continent in the world, committing to the target by 2050. Japan committed to a 46-50% cut below 2013 levels by 2030, an underwhelming target comparable to Western countries. Vladimir Putin of Russia announced no new commitments despite being the world’s fourth largest carbon emitter. 

This summit is a good starting point as it has reignited global discussions about climate change. Biden seems to be clearly committed to the cause and is in the starting phases of constituting significant change in US carbon emissions. This virtual summit pushes the momentum of the issue forward in the run up to the most important conference since Paris, COP26 which is due to be held in Glasgow this November. However, the goals of the Paris Agreement are non-binding, and the Biden administration is yet to roll out a clear-cut plan of how the US will meet these ambitious goals. Detailed plans for implementation are still needed, across all the countries, in order to ensure that the summit’s rhetoric translates into real concrete change.

This has been an extremely significant development in US-China relations as the climate change issue has urged the two countries to work together. However, the extent that this agreement will repair the existing fragmented relationship between the two countries, and seep into positive change in other policy areas of contention, is still very unlikely as a strong air of animosity remains.