By organising the virtual climate summit in April, Joe Biden didn’t fail to address one of his most important campaign promises, which is to tackle climate change in unprecedented ways. After four years of climate change denial under Donald Trump, this summit, that brought leaders of 40 countries together (Xi Jinping and Putin included), and Biden’s vow to halve the United States’ emissions by 2030, places the President and his country back as leaders in the fight against what he (rightly) considers to be the “existential crisis of our time”. This display of leadership will only strengthen his position ahead of the Glasgow COP26 taking place in November.
However, despite displaying this proactive attitude to fighting climate change, Biden’s plans for America and the rest of the world are fragile; for now, no one can confirm whether he will succeed in uniting the world around this pressing issue. Looking at the history of climate politics, it wouldn’t be the first time that promises are not kept when it comes to reducing emissions and increasing sustainability. Nonetheless, there are always some who do believe that “it’s different this time”, and it’s true that Biden’s extraordinary summit leaves room for optimism — so let’s start by looking at what can keep our hopes alive.
Following Biden’s initiative to set more ambitious goals at home, other countries have decided to readjust their targets too. Justin Trudeau, who has been criticised and labelled a “climate laggard”, because of Canada’s lack of impetus in reducing their emissions, has made a commitment to reduce Canada’s emissions by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2030, as opposed to the initially planned 30%. Similarly, Japan pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050, which puts them in line with the European Union as well as with America. Closer to home, Boris Johnson praised Biden for “returning the US to the front rank of the fight against climate change” and his government announced plans to cut the United Kingdom’s carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. Even China has spoken about their plans to reduce their use of coal. But will this list of commitments, pledges and targets suffice? Will these words turn into actions, and if they do, will they prevent the planet from overheating?
You might have noticed that Brazil and Russia have not been featured in the previous listing of “hopeful” promises. That is because Biden might have to consider himself lucky that the heads of these states were at all present for the discussions; especially noticeable was the presence of Vladimir Putin given the tense relationship he has with the United States. The president of the Russian federation hasn’t made any vows to reduce Russia’s dependency on fossil fuels; in fact, Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen in the past few years, and so has the countries oil exportation, another matter that Putin did not address.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president and a well-known denier of scientific evidence when it comes to climate, made vague promises about stopping illegal deforestation and achieving carbon neutrality. As good as this might sound, very few experts believe these claims. Indeed, Bolsonaro has repeatedly weakened the institutions and organisations in charge of the protection of the Amazon rainforest, and if we look at the increase of deforestation (legal and illegal) since he has taken office, there is little evidence to show that he is willing to reverse the curve anytime soon. Needless to say unless those who contribute the most to the destruction of the planet are ready to make a significant effort on their own and together, Biden’s summit can be considered a flop.
Even for the countries who did make commitments, these are not binding words. Most countries are not on track to meet the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement. According to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), Gambia and Morocco are the only countries whose climate policies are compatible with the targets set by the agreement. With most countries’ efforts deemed as “insufficient”, “highly”, or “critically insufficient”, it is difficult to believe that Biden’s summit will suddenly galvanise countries around the world to change their ways. In fact, even at home, Biden’s plan to cut emissions is going to prove difficult. Congress is yet to be convinced, and even with the Democrats’ majority this isn’t a given. With no guarantee of how long Biden will stay in power and who could potentially replace him in the oval office, his efforts might be interrupted after just one term.
Conversely, Xi Jinping is unlikely to face the prospect of being replaced anytime soon, his climate engagements above mentioned are in fact less promising that they first appear. Indeed, he spoke about a “controlled increase” in the use of coal for the next five years, and only then, actions will be taken to slowly decrease China’s use of coal. Furthermore, China is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060, which is an impressive goal; however, they have not mentioned any targets for their methane emissions, which are likely to increase in the near future given the development of the Chinese farming industry.
So, what can we make of Biden’s summit? One thing which is certain is that it places him, his administration, and his country at the forefront of the fight against climate change. Nevertheless, if Biden wants to mark a real turning point, he needs to do more. He will have to take actions by reviewing trade deals with certain countries — a step that no countries have previously taken for environmental reasons. Such measures will undoubtedly affect the lifestyle of most Americans, which is probably enough of a reason for any president to avoid acting this way. Even if Biden’s efforts to lead the transition to a more sustainable world are commendable, America can no longer be the sole driving force for change. This time there needs to be a joint effort from all countries to fully commit to making the fight against climate change their top priority. If they do not, “uncertain” would be an understatement when talking about the future of humanity.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore / (CC BY-SA 2.0)