Weekly Analysis

Weekly Analysis

At Glasgow, Experts Urge U.S. ‘Credibility’ To Achieve Future GHG Progress

October 25, 2021

Key experts say Biden officials at the upcoming Glasgow climate summit must show “credibility” on their promised actions -- in the form of EPA rules, new legislation and other measures -- if they are to eventually secure more ambitious pledges from other major emitters and successfully implement a landmark 2015 global agreement.

“What everyone’s looking for is whether [the United States] can deliver,” Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate & Energy Solutions (C2ES) and a long-time observer of the international climate process, said during an Oct. 22 press briefing.

He added: “We have a critical moment in time to deliver at least on as much of that climate ambition and that 2030 pledge as we can.”

President Joe Biden in April unveiled a tough new greenhouse gas target for the U.S. under the 2015 Paris Agreement, pledging to cut GHGs 50-52 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

But as the Nov. 1-12 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, draws near, Capitol Hill lawmakers are still scrambling to reach agreement on a climate-heavy budget deal that would allow the U.S. to claim it is on a path to achieve that goal.

The Glasgow meeting, formally called the 26th “Conference of the Parties” (COP26) to the United Nations framework climate treaty, also comes as several major emerging economies have yet to offer strengthened national GHG targets this year, as envisioned by the 2015 Paris deal.

The agreement features a five-year cycle during which nations are expected to submit bolstered targets. Some observers have dubbed this the “ratchet mechanism,” to signal incremental progress over time on curbing emissions, with no backsliding.

Keohane argued that for countries such as the U.S., European Union, United Kingdom and some others, “you’re seeing the ratchet is working” and spurring tougher Paris pledges. For instance, he said the expectation of stronger Paris targets this year was a “forcing framework for Biden to come back with something big and right away.”

Yet, he also pointed to a “next tier” of “really big emerging economies” that includes China, India, Russia, South Africa and Brazil, none of which has yet updated its original Paris goal. While there are always specific domestic reasons for a given country’s global climate stance, he said that broadly, “they’re not feeling the pressure on that ratchet.”

Securing tougher pledges from this group of countries, Keohane argued, will occur “when the U.S. is seen to be living up to its commitments, and credible on its commitments.”

Many other countries remain gun-shy about trusting the Americans on climate issues, given President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement and sharply pull back on climate policies more broadly.

If the U.S. can regain its credibility on climate issues, “then I think the spotlight will shift from the U.S. -- where it’s been rightly -- to those other major emitters,” Keohane suggested.

Those countries could then be faced with demands such as: “Where are you on this? You have to come forward, China, and up your ambition, and you can’t hide behind the U.S.”

Prior U.S. “intransigence” on climate “has allowed others to have a pass,” Keohane said.

Mitigation Gap

Kaveh Guilanpour, C2ES’ international climate expert, told the briefing that defining “success” will be tricky for the Glasgow summit, in part because officials have already agreed to most of the “big-ticket negotiating items.”

“There was never going to be a ‘Paris moment’ with a dramatic hammering of the gavel and an agreement being waved in the air,” he said, suggesting a real win for the event might not become evident for several years in the form of a shifted international climate policy dynamic in which countries are racing to boost ambition rather than engaged in “zero-sum” disputes.

Yet, the U.K. organizers of COP26 have stated that a chief aim of the meeting is to “keep alive” the Paris Agreement’s stretch goal of limiting average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Progress on this point will be judged by the cumulative quality of countries’ GHG pledges.

“It’s going to be vital that Glasgow gives a credible and unequivocable response to the urgency of the latest science,” Guilanpour said.

Even so, he also warned that this year’s summit was “never capable of entirely closing the mitigation gap. Every COP since Paris has closed that gap.” The Paris deal’s key function is to “incrementally raise ambition. The Paris Agreement is working, but it was never designed to work in one step.”

A top Biden administration climate negotiator earlier this month renewed calls for “key players” to offer tougher GHG targets at the Glasgow summit.

Multiple world leaders “appear to be poised to make their announcements” at COP26, said Jonathan Pershing, the deputy climate envoy at the State Department, during an Oct. 13 event hosted by the Middle East Institute. “I’m very hopeful that we’ll see a round of additional actors stepping forward with additional ambition.”

Observers have put particular emphasis on the actions of China, which is responsible for 27 percent of global emissions and is thus crucial in determining whether countries can stay on track to the Paris deal’s temperature targets.

“China has really held back on saying anything meaningful with respect to ramping up [ambition] in this decade, in the 2020s,” Todd Stern, a former U.S. climate envoy under the Obama administration who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said during a Sept. 23 event.

While concern about implementation of Biden’s target is a “fair” issue, Stern argued “that doesn’t excuse China from not doing what they need to do.”

In addition to the massive implications for emissions, U.S. observers are also closely tracking Chinese developments given that the two countries are major competitors in energy and a host of other economic areas. Further, raised ambition on climate by China could dilute longstanding arguments against beefed-up domestic climate efforts.

During the C2ES briefing, Keohane touted a new global pledge to cut methane emissions 30 percent by 2030 -- spearheaded by the U.S. and EU -- as a “great example of U.S. leadership under the Biden administration.”

He noted that methane cuts are particularly important for slowing near-term global warming, and that the topic “fits from a political point of view” if countries are looking to strengthen their Paris target, “without necessarily having to revisit some of the CO2 reductions” in their pledge.

“This would be a natural place for China to be able to step forward and raise its ambition, even if it’s not willing to move on its carbon commitments,” he argued, noting that China is “an enormous source of methane,” and that reducing such emissions is cost-effective.

‘Substantial Action’

Regarding the U.S. pledge, David Waskow, director of World Resources Institute’s (WRI) International Climate Initiative, told a separate Oct. 22 event the group hosted that Biden officials are in a position to knit together varying policies to show progress on their 2030 target.

Regarding Democrats’ emerging budget “reconciliation” bill, Waskow said: “This is a process that takes time. I think other countries are aware of that. We are confident that the legislation will come forward with a number of elements that push forward in a serious way on climate. When that happens is still unclear exactly.”

He added that the administration “has taken action already in important respects,” including proposed and final EPA climate rules on vehicles and climate-warming refrigerants, as well as proposed oil and gas methane rules expected in the coming days and steps by the Interior Department to speed offshore wind deployment.

Coupled with sub-national climate efforts, he said, “all of this adds up to really substantial action. . . . The general direction of travel is right, and it needs to increase, clearly. That is what President Biden will . . . be able to bring to Glasgow when he talks about what the United States is undertaking.”

Top Democrats this week are redoubling efforts to reach a high-level agreement on their reconciliation package, though Hill observers are increasingly expecting lawmakers cannot fully enact that bill by the end of the month and might instead outline some type of “framework” agreement that signals broad buy-in by Democrats in both the House and Senate.

Such an agreement, as well as how key lawmakers characterize its path to passage, will be closely watched in the run-up to Glasgow and during the summit.

Keohane said the “core” issue for the U.S. to regain its climate credibility will be having a “set of policies that can really put the U.S. on track to meet its commitments. That’s why the conversations on Capitol Hill are so critical.”

He added: “If the U.S. is not able to come to COP -- or at least leave COP -- and demonstrate it has policies in place [to meet its Paris target], there’s no way around it, the credibility will take a blow,” while arguing that such a blow would not be “fatal” because Congress could always pass major climate provisions after Glasgow.

“Not everything has to happen by Glasgow, but that would certainly make a big difference in terms of the wind in the sails,” he said. -- Lee Logan (llogan@iwpnews.com) & Doug Obey (dobey@iwpnews.com)

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