President Biden on Thursday committed the United States to an aggressive target to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, even as China reaffirmed its intention to increase emissions over the next decade and offered only vague pledges to eventually limit output.
The divide between the world’s two biggest polluters was on full display on the first day of Mr. Biden’s virtual climate summit amid deep skepticism that the U.S. can force changes from Beijing and other major economic competitors to meaningfully slow a rise in global temperatures.
“No nation can solve this crisis on their own, as I know you all fully understand,” Mr. Biden said to kick off the summit. “All of us, particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies, we have to step up.”
The president set a target for the U.S. to cut emissions by 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030. That goal requires drastic, costly overhauls to the U.S. economy and doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the world will come along for the ride.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his remarks at the summit, simply reiterated his pledge to hit peak carbon emissions by 2030 and move China’s economy to fully carbon-neutral by 2060 — a full decade after Mr. Biden’s goal for the U.S.
“China has committed to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality in a much shorter time span than what might take many developed countries, and that requires [extraordinarily] hard efforts from China,” Mr. Xi said.
He said the country plans to “strictly limit” an increase in coal consumption and phase it down in the coming years.
Despite the public assurances, China has continued to be a top emitter from coal-fired plants.
The country commissioned 38.4 gigawatts worth of new coal plants in 2020, more than three times the 11.9 gigawatts commissioned in the rest of the world, according to a report from Global Energy Monitor and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said China is “shamelessly” continuing to pump out more emissions as its leaders stiff-arm U.S. negotiators.
He knocked the “kid gloves” approach of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry on a recent trip to Shanghai to try to prod Beijing to reduce emissions.
“China’s vice-minister for foreign affairs said, quote, ‘I’m afraid that is not very realistic,’” Mr. McConnell said. “Democrats’ zeal for imposing costly environmental agendas on our own nation is not something our biggest foreign competitors seem to share.”
Among individual countries, the top five emitters of carbon dioxide in the world are China, the United States, India, Russia, and Japan.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi touted a new partnership with the U.S. to try to mobilize investments in cleaner technology, but he insisted that his country was doing its part to cut emissions.
“India’s per capita carbon footprint is 60% lower than the global average,” Mr. Modi said. “It is because our lifestyle is still rooted in sustainable, traditional practices.”
But India’s pollution levels have worsened in recent years to the point where premature mortality is costing its economy an estimated $45 billion per year, according to a report this week from Dalberg Advisors, a global consulting group.
The study estimated that air pollution costs India’s broader economy almost $100 billion per year or about 3% of the country’s 2019 gross domestic product.
Mr. Kerry said Russian President Vladimir Putin sounded “pretty rational” Thursday with his general pledges on climate cooperation.
“So just as with China, where we found a way to try to at least create this chain, this line of communication … we have a long way to go, but it’s beginning. And that’s the nature of diplomacy,” Mr. Kerry told reporters.
The world will face an initial test this year, as steadily rebounding economies are expected to boost carbon output after a decline in 2020 because of coronavirus-related lockdowns and restrictions.
Carbon emissions declined by nearly 6% in 2020 but are projected to increase by close to 5% as demand for coal, oil, and gas rebounds, according to a report this month from the International Energy Agency.
Mr. Kerry boasted that the private sector is already dictating a shift to electric vehicles and solar power and that the U.S. could well exceed Mr. Biden’s target.
“The marketplace is doing this. You can’t build a coal-fired power plant in the United States with a bank funding it,” he said. “And no individual is going to throw the money down there.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr. Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, which includes billions of dollars for climate-related initiatives, is also part of the path toward cutting emissions.
“The market’s part of it, and the private sector is part of it, and I think that’s an important component of the very good question of how will we ensure that these changes are ingrained in the future,” Ms. Psaki said. “But there is absolutely a role for government to play: some through executive action, some through legislation.”
Mr. Biden has already taken various executive actions on climate, including a move to reenter the 2015 Paris Agreement on his first day in office. President Trump withdrew from the pact, saying it would restrict U.S. businesses and allow foreign competitors to gain an advantage.
Ten state attorneys general filed a lawsuit Thursday to try to block an order from Mr. Biden requiring agencies to calculate the social cost of emissions when they enact regulations.
“With the stroke of his pen, Joe Biden is bypassing our elected representatives to impose the left’s radical, self-defeating green agenda on the American economy and people,” said Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.
It’s unlikely that the $2.3 trillion proposal will make it through Congress in its current form.
Republicans and some Democrats have balked at the relatively paltry levels of spending on roads and bridges and the $2.5 trillion in corporate tax hikes that Mr. Biden wants to use to pay for the plan over time.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that 56% of the total spending in the plan addresses climate change in some way.
Breaking down the eight-year cost would translate to roughly $1,200 in annual spending per American household, on average.
That is well above what many U.S. voters say they are willing to pay, according to a May 2020 survey.
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