Diplomacy for climate restarts: USA and China get back to the table

The two-day summit of 22 April wanted by the White House, perhaps one of the last major summits of the pandemic era, was pretty unusual. Rival nations such as the United States and allies, China, Russia gathered around the virtual table, albeit for a brief moment, with the aim of finding a new commitment to climate cooperation. The televised format of the summit produced some technical slips—Putin’s interruption of Macron’s speech—but, beyond that, this summit was able to restore hope to the observers of the international process on climate, which has the Paris agreement as its cornerstone. First, because the United States—finally back to the negotiating table—and half a dozen allies made a commitment to significant new efforts and funds to reduce climate-damaging emissions.

The United States will reduce its fossil fuel emissions by up to 50-52% by 2030: this is the commitment that Joe Biden announced, a doubling of the reductions promised by Obama administration in the Paris Agreement in 2015. According to environmentalists, 57% would be the perfect goal, in line with the scientists’ wish to contain the increase in global temperatures below 1.5 °C. However, the announcement is ambitious, given that it is the United States we are talking about.

“We are determined to act. By responding to and fighting climate change, I see an opportunity to create millions of jobs. This is the decisive decade to avoid the worst consequences: we must act. This summit is the first step on the path we must take together”, said Joe Biden.

US President Joe Biden during the Summit

US President Joe Biden during the Summit © AP Photo/Evan Vucci


China, Europe and others

A new announcement was expected from China, which instead reiterated its intention to achieve net zero emissions by 2060 and peak emissions by 2030. However, the most important message was addressed to the domestic audience. In his speech, President Xi Jingping highlighted the urgent need to slow China’s construction of new coal-fired power plants. “We want to strictly control coal energy”, a message about future coal plant projects mainly addressed to China’s provincial officials. According to analysts, China’s reluctance to proclaim new commitments is due to the fact that the Americans organised the event. So we will have to wait for Cop26, the United Nations climate conference, a multilateral forum, which will be held in Glasgow in November, to learn about the new China’s objectives.

Europe officially announced its commitment to achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and the interim goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% compared to 1990 levels by 2030.

The announcements of Japan, South Korea and Canada were weak, although the Envoy for Climate John Kerry had been lobbying them heavily in recent weeks. The Country of the Rising Sun is aiming for a 46% reduction by 2030, compared to 2013 levels. The previous goal was 26%. Seoul only announced that they want to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 and cancel public funds for new coal plants (abroad). For Canada, Justin Trudeau only announces a 40-45% cut compared to 2005 levels. This +10% is the signal of a Country green only in words, still too dependent on fossil fuels and with too many interests linked to the warming of the Arctic.

The Brazilian head of state, Jair Bolsonaro, sends the most controversial message of all: after giving the green light to the indiscriminate cutting of the Amazon, he announces that Brazil wants to eliminate deforestation (in 2030). What is the real purpose? To get over 1 billion from the USA and Norway for a special fund to fight deforestation and to hoard economic resources for commitments that they will hardly meet. Putin was on the same page: he used platitudes, without any tangible content. Of course, his presence is already an achievement after Biden had called him a killer, while Moscow is amassing troops on the Ukrainian border.

Diplomacy for climate restarts. Logo Leadres Summit on climate

Positive review: multilateralism restarts

However, it is difficult not to consider the summit a green diplomatic success for John Kerry and the Biden administration. China, which leads the large group of developing and newly industrialised countries, reconfirmed its interest in continuing the climate negotiations to definitively conclude the text and the implementation rules of the Paris Agreement (chapters on finance and verification and monitoring mechanisms are still missing). A political union that was missing in the unsuccessful summit of 2019 held in Madrid.

“The new goals presented by the main Western countries invited to the event, first of all the United States, seem to lead to a reduction in the gap between actions necessary to remain within +1.5 °C and current commitments of 12/14%’, explains Jacopo Bencini, policy advisor of Italian Climate Network, an association whose purpose is to analyse and promote climate policies. This is a good step forward which, however, must be followed by further and numerous concrete steps in view of Cop26. Ambitious political and administrative tools are needed to fill the remaining 86% from the goal. This Summit should only be the beginning of the new ambitious multilateral journey towards emissions reductions. A journey that, six years after the handshake between Obama and Xi Jinping, with Biden seems to see the United States-China couple at the helm again”.

Climate Finance

Meanwhile, the US is trying to accelerate things as for climate finance. The US President asked Congress for a 12% increase in funds for the Department of State and other international programmes in the fiscal year October 2021-September 2022 for climate cooperation. This proposal, which will be discussed and used as a guide by Congress, includes a 1.2 billion dollars contribution to the UN-backed Green Climate Fund (GCF) and 1.3 billion dollars for other bilateral and multilateral climate programmes. According to Joe Thwaites of the World Resources Institute: “This puts the US back in the game but falls short of what is needed to restore America’s global credibility on climate”. With Barack Obama, the United States had promised to fund three billion dollars but had only disbursed one billion dollars before Donald Trump withdrew US support to the GCF. Biden administration promised to ‘keep’ the Obama administration’s commitment, but 1.2 billion dollars are less than the 2 billion dollars that should be reallocated to the GCF.