In terms of signalling, US president Joe Biden’s virtual meeting on climate action, with leaders of 40 nations, was of incalculable value. After the despair of the Trump years—the climate-denying former president had walked the US out of the Paris Accord—the US isn’t just pledging to cut emissions by 50-52% (from 2005 levels) by 2030, but also seems to be firmly in the driver’s seat once again on the global climate agenda. Biden’s broad roadmap to get there—part of his ambitious $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, involving generous incentives for electric vehicles, bolstering nuclear power and renewables capacity, creation of carbon capture infrastructure, upgradation of the grid for climate resilience, sizeable investments in mass public transport, chunky funding for climate and energy R&D, etc—also seems promising. The fact that the administration is leaning more on incentives for business to lap up green opportunities than penalising emissions through tax and regulatory measures makes the plan both politically and economically feasible. But climate leadership will take a lot more than this. While the 50-52% reduction in emissions by 2030 is an unprecedentedly ambitious target, this is nowhere near enough. Indeed, the IPCC had warned some years ago that the anthropogenic emissions needed to decline by 45% over 2010 levels by 2030 and fall to net zero by 2050 if the planet is to keep to the 1.5oC warming (above pre-industrial temperature by the end of this century) pathway. Second, the US, as also its developed-country peers, need to significantly step up funding for developing nations in undertaking green growth. Biden reiterated his commitment to ask the US Congress for $1.25 billion to give to the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF), while corralling private investment in green opportunities. To be sure, this is a sea-change from the Trump administration putting the GCF in jeopardy by exiting the Paris Agreement.
But, how insufficient this is should be evident from the gap between the GCF’s goal to mobilise at least $100 billion by 2020 and the fund securing pledges of only $10 billion since 2014, of which just $7.2 billion was available for commitment. Contrast this with the estimate of developing countries needing $3.5 trillion by 2030 to meet their climate pledges, and the GCF leadership talking about $23 trillion in climate financing opportunities in developing nations between now and 2030. Indeed, several countries including China, the largest absolute polluter, voiced scepticism at the summit over developed countries putting their money where their mouth is. Biden’s (read, the US’s) climate leadership will need a lot more—from bringing Australia and Brazil on board to getting China to pull its weight on climate action. There will be challenges at home, too—the spin-doctoring post Biden’s annnouncements shows the US is not ready for the altering of the consumption paradigm that the EU is talking about. At present, the number of nations whose climate policies are consistent with a 2-degree-or-lower pathway, as per Climate Action Tracker, number in the low single-digits, and the US is not one them. While Biden’s initiatives are meaningful and important, much more is needed.