Mar 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's big, global climate power play

Illustration of a hand circling the earth with a marker

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The next month is the most important period for U.S. climate action in more than a decade, and possibly ever, longtime advocates and observers tell Axios.

Why it matters: With scientists issuing more urgent warnings that time is running out to curtail the consequences of global warming, the policy choices proposed through the end of April could reverberate for decades to come.

  • “This is the moment those of us who work in this space have been waiting for, for at least a decade," said Sam Ricketts, a co-founder and senior policy adviser for Evergreen Action.

The big picture: The Biden administration is moving quickly on three fronts to regain international credibility on this issue after the Trump White House pulled the country out of the Paris climate agreement.

  • First, the White House is proposing a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package this week that is aimed at wrapping ambitious climate policy goals into a jobs bill.
  • Second, the administration is trying to transform the country's energy mix through regulations and executive orders, most recently on Monday with the announcement that it would seek to deploy 30 gigawatts worth of offshore electricity generation by 2030. That's higher than even the most aggressive projections from energy analysts.
  • Third, there's the looming deadline for the State Department to formally unveil the country's new emissions targets under the Paris Agreement. Known as a Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC, this will signal to other countries how ambitious and serious the U.S. is about tackling climate change.

The intrigue: The details of the draft NDC are closely held among the teams of special climate envoy John Kerry and White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy. But environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers are pushing them be as bold as possible, possibly going as far as a 50% emissions cut compared to 2005 levels by 2030.

  • The target that is chosen will send a message to the rest of the world, and possibly spur other nations to be more ambitious in their emissions cuts.
  • The White House is hosting a virtual climate summit on April 22-23 to encourage other countries to make far-reaching emissions reduction plans.
  • “This is going to be seen by the rest of the world as a key test of credibility for the administration," says David Waskow of the World Resources Institute. “There’s no doubt that a strong target will both spur the economy in the U.S. in the right direction and bring some of the credibility the U.S. wants to have internationally.”

What to watch: The NDC will serve as the strongest signal to date that the U.S. is back to take a leadership role in international climate talks, and a lackluster target — particularly for 2030 — would enable other countries, including China, to emit more planet-warming greenhouse gases than they might have otherwise.

Between the lines: According to the U.N., the world is on track for at least 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) of warming by 2100 if countries stick to their current Paris emissions targets. Scientists warn that this could cause catastrophic consequences, such as the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.

What they're saying:

  • Ricketts said he's hoping to see a clean electricity standard, which could drastically scale up the use of solar, wind and other energy sources, implemented as part of the infrastructure bills.
  • "President Biden is considering all options to get the United States on the path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050," a State Department spokesperson said. They mentioned India as a "priority" country for climate diplomacy, along with China, the world's top emitter.

The other side: Republican lawmakers have already signaled their opposition to an infrastructure package that contains far-reaching climate policy provisions.

  • "We simply cannot afford another Green New Deal disguised as an infrastructure bill," Rep. Sam Graves, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement.

Yes, but: While Biden is about to show his hand, a lot needs to go right for all this to succeed — the jobs bill alone could take months to pass.

  • The razor-thin Democratic majorities in the House and Senate means the administration will have to hold together progressives and moderates, which won't be easy, particularly on how to pay for trillions in new infrastructure spending.

The bottom line: Rarely, if ever, has a moment like this come along with the potential to advance climate goals domestically and internationally at the same time. The administration is sprinting to cobble together a legislative program, regulatory moves and diplomatic steps simultaneously, which will be a delicate balancing act.

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