On April 22nd and 23rd, world leaders met virtually to express commitments and intentions to collaborate on addressing the climate emergency to protect Earth’s ecosystems for current and future generations. The event launched a new round of debate and negotiations leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November. It was also an opportunity for President Biden to signal the return of the United States to the international stage. Many around the world are still wary, after the U.S. stepped back from the international climate stage these past years. However, the event provided hope that nations may come together to tackle humanity’s greatest challenge.
For the U.S. to gain credibility as a climate leader, President Biden will need to develop durable policy. During the Leaders Summit on Climate, the president announced that the United States will aim to reduce emissions by 50 to 52 percent, relative to 2005 levels, by 2030. This commitment nearly doubles the cuts pledged by the Obama Administration under the Paris Agreement. Unlike commitments made by the U.K. and E.U., this new U.S. pledge is not legally binding. The rest of the world will expect the U.S. to produce concrete policies that can meet the new targets. To enlist other nations’ support in mitigating climate change, Biden emphasized the benefits and economic opportunity that such action represents for the U.S. and the world. He framed the global challenge as a competition to the top. Countries that do not participate will be left behind.
Other nations brought new commitments to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Japan pledged reductions of 46%, South Korea committed to stop public financing of new coal-fired power plants, and Canada will increase its emissions cuts to at least 40%. On the other hand, China and India did not step up with more ambitious emission reduction targets. China did commit to phase down coal use by 2025, having pledged last year to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. The short timespan leading up to the event may have made further commitments difficult. While China is leading on solar panels and electric vehicles, it still generates a lot of energy from fossil fuels which is increasing with the post pandemic recovery. Meanwhile, President Bolsonaro of Brazil surprised many by announcing goals for peak emissions and deforestation, but his credibility is lacking due to the country’s record levels of deforestation. His request for $1 billion to combat deforestation was interpreted as soft blackmail.
Importantly, wealthier nations must help developing nations “leapfrog” to a cleaner, greener and more prosperous society, rather than leaving them to take carbon-intensive development paths. The U.S. announced it will double climate financing (to an estimated $5.7 billion) to developing countries by 2024 relative to its average level during the second half of the Obama administration. This is crucial, as the financial burden of transitioning to cleaner economies is a major obstacle for the developing world. Many countries are reluctant to divert resources from the enormous development challenges they face. Biden’s finance promise will require congressional approval and will still only be catching up with other wealthy nations’ commitments. To meet the challenge, bolder action will be needed to rapidly reduce global emissions in a manner that is fair and inclusive.
We suggest that the U.S. leads the creation of a Global Climate Compact, comprised of a coalition of nations committed to significant emissions cuts that sets a common and rising minimum price on carbon within their borders. To create incentives to join this Compact, an across-the-board tariff is levied on all imports from non-member countries as a penalty for climate inaction. This levels the playing field for Compact countries so their industries do not relocate to regions with lax climate policies. During the Summit, several leaders brought up the possibility of adopting a carbon border adjustment mechanism, which would tax imports with a higher emissions profile than similar goods produced domestically. This indicates support for carbon pricing and more sustainable international trade. An across-the-board tariff by all members of the Compact would be a much simpler approach. To ensure a fair transition at the global scale, Compact members could contribute a share of carbon tariff revenues to a fund that assists developing nations. This will also grow clean technology markets and create jobs in the U.S. and abroad. See our Framework of Principles for more details on these recommendations.
Ultimately, meeting these new emissions targets and addressing the global climate crisis is going to require coalition building. As shown by China’s participation in the Summit, climate change has proven to be an issue on which rival world leaders can put aside disputes to address their common threat. We expect commitments made at the Summit to be backed by concrete measures at the G7 in June, the G20 in October and COP26 in November, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with many across the world in supporting our governments’ action to protect our common interests.