The next phase of the climate battle is staked out

US president Joe Biden is betting that high climate aspirations by governments and businesses will translate into rapid action this decade.
US president Joe Biden is betting that high climate aspirations by governments and businesses will translate into rapid action this decade.
Image: REUTERS/Tom Brenner
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Sweeping new commitments aimed at drastically reducing the world’s carbon emissions were announced this week at the Earth Day climate summit on April 22-23. The main purpose of the summit, virtually hosted by US president Joe Biden, was to escalate global climate ambition ahead of the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement.

And on that count it delivered.

If companies and governments keep the pledges made this week, the world will be much closer to averting the most catastrophic predictions for global warming. “It was striking to see how ambitious and bold this [US] administration is willing to be,” said Nathaniel Keohane, senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund. The key battle lines for the next phase of the climate crisis are now drawn, said Keohane, “but I think the full measure of this summit and diplomacy that went in this week will only be fully seen at the end of year,” the COP26 summit held this November in Glasgow.

Here are the highlights:

Steeper, faster international greenhouse gas targets 

United States: Pledged to reduce U.S. emissions 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, roughly doubling the target set by president Barack Obama six years ago. The goal is among the most ambitious of any country. If achieved, it would represent the greatest departure from today’s trajectory, according to BloombergNEF. In other words, it’s a major challenge—but achievable, according to several recent analyses. And the administration said it plans to implement a key domestic policy to get there: Allowing states to set their own aggressive vehicle tailpipe emissions standards. Biden also promised by 2024 to double annual financing or climate-related projects in developing countries to $5.7 billion compared to what was available under Obama administration (the sum is tiny relative to the damage caused by the country’s historic emissions)

United Kingdom: Committed to reduce carbon emissions 78% below 1990 levels by 2035. For the first time, the goal will count emissions from international aviation and shipping, officials said.

European Union: Committed to reduce carbon emissions 55% below 1990 levels by 2030.

South Korea: Committed to ending public financing for overseas coal power plants. South Korea president Moon Jae-in said the nation “hopes” to ramp up its overall emissions-cutting goals this year.

Canada: Vowed to reduce emissions 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2030. That’s a big step up from the country’s older target of 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge is still short of what’s needed to hit the Paris warming target and still allows for the expansion of emissions-intensive oil sands production.

China: Promised to “strictly limit increasing coal consumption” in the next five years. That’s significant because China is, by far, the world’s largest consumer of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. China will then phase it down in the subsequent five-year plan period, and strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

Japan: Cut greenhouse gases at least 46% by 2030, more than double its previous target. But Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga remained silent on two key issues: Whether it will make greater contributions to climate finance, and whether it will follow South Korea’s lead and end financing for overseas coal plan.

South Africa: Agreed to ensure its greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2025, 10 years earlier than previously targeted, stated President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Brazil: Vowed to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030, even though the problem has worsened since current president Jair Bolsonaro took office.

Sitting out: Silence from major emitters Australia, Russia, India, and Saudi Arabia which announced no new carbon targets.

Business announcements

Big businesses back Biden pledge: The We Mean Business coalition, a collection of major companies from Ford to Amazon, supported the 50% by 2030 goal in an open letter to Biden. The 408 signatories represent firms earning more than $4 trillion in annual revenue, collectively, including General Motors, Lyft, General Electric, National Grid, Ørsted North America, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce.

Banks get on board: The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero has brought together 160 financial firms, collectively managing $70 trillion, to accelerate “coordinated and ambitious” climate action. The newest addition to the group this week was the UN-convened Net-Zero Banking Alliance, with 43 banks in 23 countries and assets of $28.5 trillion. All members must commit to reduce emissions from their operations and those in their portfolios with a pathway to net-zero by 2050 or sooner, as well as a 2030 interim target. The group includes Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, UBS, and Shinah. Citigroup also committed $1 trillion, and JP Morgan $2.5 trillion, to sustainable finance by 2030.

Carbon-free steel and flights: US Steel Corporation pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Boeing and a coalition of companies and environmental groups say they will work together on rolling out low-carbon aviation fuels.

Forests and farms as carbon sinks: Apple launched a $200 million fund with Conservation International and Goldman Sachs that aims to remove at least 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually from the atmosphere. Pepsi, meanwhile, said it will convert 7 million acres of farmland, equal to its entire agricultural footprint, to carbon-storing regenerative farming practices.

A cleaner power grid: Thirteen utility companies, including Talen Energy Corp and Excelon Corp, expressed support for Clean Energy Standard and other policies to reduce power sector emissions 80% by 2030.

Deforestation: Corporations including Amazon, Nestle, Salesforce, and AirBnB join forces with the United States, Norway, and Britain to launch a new project to raise at least $1 billion to reduce deforestation.

Greener tech: HP aims for net-zero across its supply chain by 2040, and to source “75% of its total annual product and packaging content from recycled and renewable materials and reused products and parts by 2030.” Twitter says it will pursue a science-based plan to reduce emissions by 2030.

Transparency: Salesforce announces its support for mandatory climate reporting.

Labor: United Mine Workers of America expresses support for renewable energy in exchange for jobs and endorses a just transition. Breakthrough Energy will back the Labor Energy Partnership and plans five regional workshops on metals and minerals for clean energy technology.

Commitments by local governments

California: Governor Gavin Newsom declared California the first state to end oil extraction in the US, including fracking. It will phase out all new fracking extraction permits by 2024 and, analyze how to phase out oil and gas extraction in the following two decades.

Net-zero cities: The number of cities committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 grew to 700, a 20% jump. As part of the C40 group, cities are committed to halving emissions within the next decade before reaching net-zero. Other municipal commitments include: Mayor Bill Peduto signed an executive order pledging Pittsburgh to become carbon neutral by 2050. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti commits the city to consume 97% carbon-free energy by 2030. And the Sacramento Municipal Utility District plans to provide carbon-free power by 2030.

Local officials demand more from Biden: Twelve governors call for a federal standard to ensure that all new passenger vehicles are zero-emission no later than 2035. And over 1,200 state and local officials from all 50 states call on Congress to pass the American Jobs Plan.

New York will see oil companies in court: New York City files a lawsuit against several oil companies and announces plans to make the city’s school bus fleet 100% electric by 2035. New York State, meanwhile, announces more than 20 large-scale renewable energy projects and launches $50 million building decarbonization program