Climate crisis: What has Joe Biden done for the environment in his first 100 days?

US president turns attention to environment for crucial Earth Day summit after taking on myriad other issues in opening weeks in Oval Office

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Monday 19 April 2021 17:57
<p>US president Joe Biden</p>

US president Joe Biden

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US president Joe Biden is approaching 100 days in office after making a swift start to his tenure in the White House in which he issued a flurry of executive orders, pushing major spending bills through Congress to fend off the coronavirus pandemic and stimulate the country’s economy.

Mr Biden is now turning his attention to the environment ahead of Earth Day, with his administration forced to pick up the pieces following the disastrous reign of Donald Trump, who considered the climate crisis “a hoax”, withdrew from the Paris accord, backed “beautiful clean coal” over the renewable energy sector and engaged in the hacking and slashing of regulations to permit drilling on once-protected public lands.

Mr Trump’s successor, also having been confronted with America’s epidemic of gun violence, will host a virtual climate summit this week, bringing together world leaders in the hope of securing more ambitious commitments to united action.

Given that John Kerry, the president’s special envoy for climate change, appears to have persuaded China, the world’s biggest polluter, to join Washington in addressing the crisis with a renewed sense of purpose, optimism for the future of the planet is cautiously high.

Here’s a look at Mr Biden’s record on the climate emergency so far as he approaches a century of days in the top job.

Signing executive orders

Within hours of entering the Oval Office on 20 January following his inauguration ceremony, President Biden got down to work and signed an order immediately recommitting the US to the terms of the Paris climate accord, pledging to bring down the rate of global heating to 1.5C by 2030.

He also placed Mr Trump’s harmful regulatory rollbacks under immediate review and returned to the policy of measuring the social cost of carbon.

This means placing a round number on how much damage a metric tonne of carbon dioxide emitted today will do in the future, in order to assess how much a given policy will impact the economy in the long run.

His adminstration duly announced its initial estimate at $51 per tonne on 26 February.

This early pace-setting won the new president the approval of groups including the Natural Resources Defence Council, the Sunrise Movement and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Declaring nationally determined contribution

Ahead of this week’s summit, Mr Biden is expected to unveil the US’s new nationally determined contribution (NDC), his administration’s plan for cutting domestic greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years, something it has not had in place since Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord.

America’s example is vital given that it is the world’s second-biggest polluter and because, according to a recent UN assessment, the world’s current NDCs in place will only lead to a reduction in emissions of one per cent by 2030.

“Everyone needs to do better NDCs,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who oversaw the Paris summit in 2015: “We have to increase ambition. New updates are coming out to climate science showing we are perilously close to tipping points. We have to meet the scale of that challenge, and we have to start the descent. We can no longer be on the path of increasing emissions.”

President Biden needs to make his national target a 60 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels for the world to have a credible chance of holding back global temperature rises within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels, Climate Action Tracker indicated last month.

Seeking co-operation from China

Thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Mr Kerry, who met with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua in Shanghai last week, the Biden administration has struck an agreement with Beijing to work together to tackle the crisis.

“The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” a joint statement released by the US State Department said.

While this is unquestionably an important step, Chinese vice foreign minister Le Yucheng has said his country is unlikely to offer any further concessions prior to Mr Biden’s summit.

“For a big country with 1.4bn people, these goals are not easily delivered,” Mr Le said. “Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.”

Li Shuo, a senior Greenpeace climate adviser, welcomed the announcement anyway, calling the joint statement “as positive as the politics would allow”.

Hosting virtual summit

President Biden has invited 40 world leaders – with Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin among them but their attendance uncertain – to his online White House gathering later this week, an important milestone ahead of November’s Climate Change Conference (COP26) meeting in Glasgow.

Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Mario Draghi are all set to take part, while Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia also in the “maybe” pile.

Mr Bolsonaro’s co-operation would also be valuable but his environment minister, Ricardo Salles, has reportedly rebuffed a US approach for a deal on safeguarding the Amazon rainforest and said the country would need $10bn a year in foreign aid to meet 2050 carbon neutrality targets.

According to The Financial Times, the US president intends to use his event to “highlight examples of how enhanced climate ambition will create good paying jobs, advance innovative technologies, and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts”.

Critics of Mr Biden’s efforts so far have expressed concern that his efforts would eliminate fossil fuel sector jobs, like fracking sector employment in his native Pennsylvania.

These are fears that are likely to be shared further afield so are important for him to address.

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