What a difference an administration makes! Almost 200 countries ratified the Paris climate accord at COP21 in 2015, agreeing to limit the planet’s temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. Afterward, President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement. On Friday, US President Joe Biden hosted a virtual climate summit titled the “Virtual Meeting of the Major Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate.”

Biden spoke about the “urgency of this moment” and the need for a collective “plan to contribute to the climate ambition the world so urgently needs.”

The Power of Story to Make the Climate Crisis Relevant

Former President Donald Trump denied that the climate crisis was a reality, attacked the value of clean energy, and fired scientists in federal departments in favor of installing political friends. Taking a completely different approach, President Biden has acknowledged scientific consensus that the climate crisis poses an existential threat and implored leaders during Friday’s climate summit to take action.

During opening remarks, the President affirmed his promise that the US “would return immediately to the world stage and address the climate crisis.” With some of the most powerful economic forces in the world surrounding him, Biden expressed hope in a “silver lining” — one that would restrict global temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels through “real and incredible economic opportunities to create jobs and lift up the standard of living of people around the world.” The public opening to the Forum was a counterpoint to the otherwise private talks.

Always forthright, Biden told his audience that countries representing the Major Economies Forum account for 80% of global emissions.

The backdrop stage set was specially designed with virtual solar panel arrays as the global leaders were visible on thumbnail screens. Biden called upon the power of story and described the “damage and destruction” in the US and the destructive flooding in Europe. He zoomed in on the experience of seeing California firefighters battling powerful, widespread, and deadly wildfires more than ever before due to rising temperatures and unrelenting drought. He spoke how natural disasters like numerous hurricanes have wreaked havoc on US regions from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast.

Pledges to Do More to Mitigate the Effects of the Climate Crisis

The Biden administration has pledged to cut emissions 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030 and is working to pass historic investments — to modernize what can become a more climate-resilient infrastructure and to build a clean energy future. In doing so, the administration hopes to create millions of jobs and usher in new industries of the future.

To reach such levels, Biden said the US would:

  • have a power sector free of carbon by 2035;
  • sell 50% of total cars as electric by 2050;
  • align efforts with the work of forums like Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation (which the US will chair next year);
  • focus on ocean initiatives in advance of the Our Ocean Conference in February;
  • convene a leaders-level gathering to take stock of the collective progress the countries in attendance make; and,
  • work with the European Union and other partners to launch a Global Methane Pledge to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030.

Specifically, Biden’s prodding at the Forum for participants to join a global pledge of cutting methane (aka “natural gas”) was deconstructed recently by CleanTechnica‘s Joe Wachunas. “Burning methane is currently responsible for nearly 25% of all carbon emissions in the US, and its use is growing,” Wachunas began. “Methane is also deeply embedded in many of our homes, and this will make it a challenge to extricate. We aren’t anywhere near hitting peak natural gas usage on our current trajectory.”

Methane is one of the most potent agents of climate damage, bursting by the ton from countless uncapped oil and gas rigs, leaky natural gas pipelines, and other oil and gas facilities. Although methane has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is, per unit, more than 20× as potent at warming the planet. During the Forum, Biden pointed to US efforts to plug leaks and cap abandoned wells as “big steps domestically to tackle these emissions.”

“Swift & Bold Action” Necessary beyond the Collegiality of the Climate Summit

It will take substantive effort to push through legislation to put into place the types of emissions levels that Biden outlined. China and India aren’t any better than the US, either, having yet to announce their new targets.

An area of contention at the Forum was pressure for the largest economies to assist less wealthy countries to transition to cleaner energy and to make sense of the changes to their countries that the climate crisis has created. In April, the Biden administration pledged to deliver $5.7 billion annually to these countries by 2024. During today’s Forum, Biden increased that amount by pointing to a “collective goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year.”

During a letter sent earlier this month to the climate summit’s invited guests, Biden offered the opportunity for “a focused, private discussion” to address the “profound generational challenge” posed by the climate crisis. Not to be deterred by the enormous task, Biden affirmed that the world’s largest economies possessed an “extraordinary opportunity to create a more prosperous and sustainable economy benefitting all.” Ever the negotiator and compromiser, Biden used the imperative of strengthening climate efforts so that action might be “swift and bold enough” to make a lasting impact that would “benefit […] both present and future generations.”

The invitation to Argentinian President Fernandez was posted on that country’s website.

Final Thoughts about the Climate Summit & What’s Ahead

From October 31 to November 1, the United Nations conference in Glasgow — the COP26 summit — will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Nearly 200 nations are expected to announce more ambitious emissions-cutting targets than they had previously set in order to keep the world from overheating.

“Glasgow,” President Biden told his audience at the Forum, “is not our final destination.” Instead, countries around the world must “continue strengthening our ambition and our actions next year and throughout the decisive decade to keep us at one point — below 1.5 degrees and to keep that within reach.”

Participants at Friday’s climate summit included:

President Alberto Fernandez, Argentine Republic
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Commonwealth of Australia
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, People’s Republic of Bangladesh
President Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission
President Charles Michel, European Council
President Joko Widodo, Republic of Indonesia
Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italian Republic
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Japan
President Moon Jae-in, Republic of Korea
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, United Mexican States
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Secretary-General António Guterres, United Nations
Special Envoy of the President and China Special Envoy for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua, People’s Republic of China
Parliamentary State Secretary at the Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, Federal Republic of Germany
Union Cabinet Minister of Labour and Employment, Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav, India
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change Ruslan Edelgeriyev, Russian Federation

Image screenshot taken from YouTube during Presidential welcome remarks


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