Mar 15, 2024 - Energy & Environment

U.S. "tracking" to unveil new climate targets this year

Illustration of a hand holding a dart with leaves

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

John Podesta, President Biden's senior advisor for international climate policy, said during a visit to Japan that the U.S. is "on track" to unveil its new climate targets this year, and must do so by next February.

Why it matters: A key goal for the next U.N. Climate Summit in Baku, Azerbaijan, is for countries to come forward with new emissions reduction and climate finance goals, which run through 2035.

Zoom in: Known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), these targets are voluntary.

  • The existing U.S. NDC calls for cutting its emissions by an economy-wide target of 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Podesta told media in Japan that there is "no firm decision on timing" but that it may be helpful to come out with an earlier NDC rather than waiting until the February UN deadline.
  • "We'll make a judgment about when we're ready, and whether an early announcement of a U.S. NDC would catalyze greater ambition by other countries," he said.
  • "But you know, we're tracking to be able to do that this year, and we have an obligation to do it by February of next year."

Context: Setting an NDC is not easy, since it takes multiple government agencies to determine what is achievable and also ambitious.

Yes, but: Even with the enactment of the biggest climate law in U.S. history, the Biden administration is not quite on track to meet its current NDC (for that matter, neither are many other countries). It hints that more stringent commitments could be a hard sell.

  • "This suggests that Washington plans to be actively engaged in getting other countries on board with ambitious NDCs," Li Shuo, director of the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society, told Axios.

The intrigue: During his first trip abroad in his new gig, Podesta revealed that he has already spoken with his Chinese counterpart virtually, and the two are planning an in-person meeting.

  • He is likely to push China on their coal use, while also seeking areas of mutual cooperation.
  • "China is the largest emitter (of greenhouse gases) in the world... They still have online in my view more coal than they need, and more coal than is good for the health of the world," Podesta said in Tokyo, per France24.

The big picture: The run-up to COP29 and setting of new targets will take place against the backdrop of a presidential election in which the candidates have stark differences on climate.

  • Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, seeks to roll back Biden's climate policies.
  • In fact, according to Project 2025, a Heritage Foundation project to lay the policy groundwork for the next Republican administration, a reelected Trump should go further than withdrawing again from the Paris climate agreement.
  • As E&E News reported this week, Project 2025 calls for exiting the UN's climate framework agreement upon which the Paris accord rests.

Flashback: The UNFCCC was negotiated in 1992, ratified by the Senate and signed by then-president George H.W. Bush, and has the support of virtually every country.

Our thought bubble: A U.S. withdrawal from the UNFCCC would cause an international climate policy earthquake.

  • It may make it difficult for a future administration to opt back in without going through Senate ratification again.
  • On the other hand, exiting the agreement would limit U.S. leverage to influence climate summit outcomes.

What we're watching: As Podesta pushes other leaders to submit ambitious NDCs, and compose the next one from the U.S., the top U.N. climate official is also urging policymakers to think bigger.

  • Simon Stiell, the UN executive secretary for the UNFCCC, wrote to leaders Thursday, asking them to step up the pace and ambition of new NDCs and enact more stringent 2030 targets.
  • He's also calling on countries to live up to their existing financial commitments and offer more funding for climate resilience and other purposes.

What they're saying: "These 2030 targets — together with your new national climate plans with a time horizon to 2035 — will determine how protected your peoples, economies and national budgets will be from rapidly worsening climate impacts," Stiell wrote.

"In all respects," he wrote of the next round of NDCs, "[they] will be the most important climate documents produced so far this century in securing the safety and prosperity of your peoples."

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