Apr 23, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The Biden climate doctrine emerges at summit

Illustration of a hand pressing a spot on the planet, turning it green

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

President Biden's climate summit is highlighting a White House approach that blends diplomacy, executive power, salesmanship and a few threats too.

  • Here are a few pillars of the emerging Biden doctrine.

1. Convincing the world that executive power can work. The White House is pulling out all the stops to sell the idea that every inch of the executive branch can be marshaled in ways big and small.

  • The summit lineup features officials from across the government. The message is that strong progress is possible without Congress — a branch Biden didn't even mention in his summit-opening remarks.
  • Or take the international finance plan unveiled yesterday. Yes, it calls for more money (hello Congress), but then pivots to how the U.S. development finance agencies can reorient their own work around climate.
  • Congress barely surfaces in the detailed new pledge to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030. Squint and you'll find references, for instance, to "incentives," which is code for tax policy — but overall it largely avoids acknowledging reliance on lawmakers.
  • It's all a bow to reality, given that big climate policy tools face Capitol Hill resistance, while a conservative judiciary could block sweeping regulations.

2. Faith that an underwhelming global diplomatic apparatus can be effective.

  • Special climate envoy John Kerry has been everywhere as the U.S., despite its own credibility problems, tries to get countries to toughen their commitments and then do the harder part — put meaningful policy heft behind them.
  • One big bet is that a mix of collaboration and economic competition with China can lead the world's largest polluter to take tougher steps.
  • Some of the pledges at the summit, including new commitments by Canada and Japan, are of the right scale to keep global warming within the limits of the Paris climate agreement if they're carried out. But that's a big if — and China and India made no new specific commitments.
  • More broadly, the summit shows the U.S. is trying to make use of a range of bilateral and multilateral forums to begin sending global emissions sharply downward — something that's not happening yet.

3. But there are sticks, too — or at least the threat of them. Yesterday's submission under the Paris agreement says that to make sure U.S. workers and firms "are not put at an unfair competitive disadvantage," the U.S. will consider "carbon border adjustments in relation to carbon-intensive goods."

  • Translation: If your country isn't cracking down on emissions too, we'll tax your exports to the U.S.

4. The idea that big finance can be made into a climate ally.

  • Top execs with Bank of America and Citigroup spoke at the summit Thursday.
  • And one big UN-backed announcement this week, with the participation of Kerry and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, is a new financial sector umbrella group that looks to marshal huge amounts of private capital into clean technologies and pressure polluting industries to get cleaner.

5. Confidence in clean energy technology's growth.

White House officials this week have made the case that growing competitiveness and cost declines can help with the heavy lifting toward their emissions targets.

  • They touted progress across corporate America, where leaders are asking for federal action on emissions to spur innovation, along with more R&D spending.
  • At Google, for example, the company went carbon neutral in 2007 and has been ramping up its use of clean energy ever since. With rapid cost declines in solar, wind, and battery technology, Google has set its sights on powering itself completely by carbon-free energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What they're saying: In an interview with Axios, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said the company sees itself in part as a clean energy accelerator.

  • "Moving to a world where we are able to operate by sourcing clean energy for every location and every hour, and doing it across your operational footprint in everything you do, I think that's profound," Pichai said. "Our goal is not just to do it for ourselves, but share the knowledge and the solutions we come up with."
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