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Delivering success at the US Leaders Summit on Climate

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Halving emissions by 2030—this is the global imperative against which US President Biden’s upcoming Leaders Summit has to be judged. It’s great the US is back at the climate table, and the Biden-Harris Administration is making climate action a central organising principle of its government.  

US re-engagement is already having an impact across international processes like the G7 and G20. US climate envoy John Kerry has been busy travelling to Europe, the UAE, and South Asia to rebuild relationships.  

Domestically, early signs of action are promising. From US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen joining the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action to Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg championing resilient infrastructure in the American Jobs Plan. 

On the international stage, the big test will be the Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22-23rd. To succeed, the US must deliver an ambitious domestic climate goal (NDC) and encourage other countries to enhance their climate ambition. Timed for early in the year, the summit must set a high bar if it is to be leveraged throughout 2021. 

Setting the stage 

Who’s invited? Forty heads of state in total, including the G20 countries and 17 original members of the Major Economies Forum, climate leaders and vulnerable countries like Bhutan and the Marshall Islands, and the Europeans that carried the climate diplomacy torch through four years of US absence.  Laggards like Brazil and Turkey are also invited to some chagrin. It remains to be seen whether giving them stage will lead to improved climate policy. 

The Leaders Summit takes place against a complex geopolitical backdrop. Most countries are still struggling with COVID-19. Recoveries are diverging dangerously, and the climate movement must be cognizant of vaccine rollout as a priority inextricably linked to their own success. Stage choreography between the US, Europe, and China triad will have to be carefully managed. Relations between the three have deteriorated over trade and technology, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and violent clashes in Hong Kong.  

The climate movement must be cognizant of vaccine rollout as a priority inextricably linked to their own success.

US climate envoy John Kerry is now headed to Shanghai in an effort to persuade President Xi to attend the virtual summit and back China’s climate pledges with action. What does this look like exactly? The US will pressure China to stop burning coal at home and financing coal abroad. China will pressure the US to find finance to help developing countries recover from COVID-19 and be able to compete in a warmer, albeit net-zero, world. Beijing has signalled its willingness to reinstate the Obama era US-China climate change working group. There is a deal to be done.   

With Biden in office, working together with the UK G7 and Italy G20 Presidencies, 2021 also presents a political opportunity to step up on solidarity, as well as make deals with key countries such as India, South Africa, and Indonesia to commit to the clean energy transition. This year has so far shown little evidence of coordination between climate progressive major powers and climate-vulnerable coalitions—now is the time for some trust-building, concerted leadership, and joined-up thinking. For an analysis of the broader geopolitical dynamics at play, read our April snapshot. 

What does the Summit have to materially deliver?   

1 — Mitigation ambition: Current NDCs are vastly insufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Ambitious commitments from top emitters will be necessary ahead of COP26 to keep the hope of a 1.5C future alive. Mitigating an additional 9 GT of emissions—a key benchmark of success this year—hinges on new and improved plans from both China and the US.   

A credible US target must aim for at least 50% cuts below 2005 emissions levels by 2030, according to coalitions of American scientistsbusinesses, and NGOs.  The White House is reportedly considering a range of emissions cuts between 48-53%. The expectation is other countries, such as Japan, South Korea, Canada, India, Indonesia, and South Africa, will also use the summit to announce more ambitious 2030 targets or other climate commitments. 

Ambitious commitments from top emitters will be necessary ahead of COP26 to keep the hope of a 1.5C future alive. Mitigating an additional 9 GT of emissions—a key benchmark of success this year—hinges on new and improved plans from both China and the US.   

2 — Real economy shifts: A commitment to 100% clean electricity or 0% coal in the next decade will provide evidence that the real economy is shifting to green. The US must put real money behind decarbonisation, ending public financing for fossil fuels and supporting green infrastructure, at home and abroad.  

At the Summit, businesses are expected to release a plethora of new climate actions—these must be packaged together to denote a clear shift. We want to see the US work with the UK, joining its COP26 campaigns on the energy transition, clean road transport, and nature-based solutions. 

3 — Climate finance: Rich countries like the US need to find more money to support developing countries to respond to the pandemic and build back better. In addition to making good on old climate pledges to the Green Climate Fund, the US must also support major COVID-19 recovery plans through reallocated Special Drawing Rights, help with debt overhang and public bank reforms such as balance sheet optimisation.  

There are rumours that a major initiative and injection of private finance for public goods will round out a financial package announced at the summit. In its entirety, the package will have to be at sufficient scale to coax other rich countries to do more and change the politics in the run-up to COP26.   

4 — Innovation: The Leaders Summit must inject confidence that countries can collaborate on research and development, share learnings, and still compete in a net-zero global economy. The US will bring to bear its innovative capacity, but solutions will come faster if countries collaborate, along with private sector actors and academia, through platforms like Mission Innovation 

Just as the world developed COVID-19 vaccines in record time, we need to work together on climate at an unprecedented speed to scale up and deploy existing technology, as well as invest in breakthrough changes to reach 100% net-zero. 

The Leaders Summit must inject confidence that countries can collaborate on research and development, share learnings, and still compete in a net-zero global economy

After the past four years, many countries are bruised and sceptical of US leadership and braced for when the pendulum may swing back. That said, no one organises the world quite like the US. So far the Biden-Harris administration has expressed humility and thanked Europe and others for carrying the can. It’s best to continue in this tone and avoid a US saviour complex.  

The Leaders Summit on Climate is but one moment. By itself, it cannot be enough. Other moments throughout 2021 will have to help build momentum toward COP26 in Glasgow and add to a collective sense that finally—after forty years of negotiations—this is the pivotal year.   

Multilateralism works. Targets are real, and countries believe that cooperation in the service of building net-zero economies is in their national interest. This is the emotional reaction we hope Earth Day 2021 contributes to. Our world depends on it.   

This piece also appears in China Dialogue.

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