U.S. Uses COP26 to Signal Leadership on Climate, but More Action Needed

Maggie Dewane
Catalina Gonzalez

Nov. 18, 2021

The reactions are pouring in following the closing of the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow. Generally, while some progress was made, the news across the board is that not enough was accomplished to keep the planet under the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold necessary to stave off climate catastrophe. There was, however, a  noticeable shift from years’ past: the U.S. presence.

President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office, fulfilling a campaign promise immediately and noting to the world, “The U.S. is back.” At the meetings in Glasgow, it was clear the Biden administration wanted to show this return to global leadership by sending an extensive contingency to represent the U.S. government. In addition to Biden’s Climate Envoy John Kerry, 12 cabinet members and senior administration officials were tapped, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, and less public-facing office heads from the White House Office of Science and Technology and National Economic Council.

In addition to the cohort from the Biden administration, climate action advocates from the House of Representatives were present, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Green New Deal author Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and long-time environmental champion Earl Blumenauer.

The U.S. was concerted in its effort to send its top brass, but the symbolism didn’t necessarily court the favor of other countries. That’s because despite the U.S.’s pledge to cut emissions in half by 2030, there are few policies in place that would actually achieve this goal. 

For the U.S. to meet its climate commitments, it will need to administer unprecedented levels of coordination between the Biden administration, federal agencies, state and local entities, and the private sector. According to climate scientists, faster and more ambitious reductions in global GHG emissions, beyond what has been agreed to by countries, will be needed to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis. Still, meeting these modest commitments will test the strength and capacity of the whole-of-government and institutions. Greater accountability and improved capacity for accurate emissions tracking will also be needed to make sure the outcomes commitments and agreements between nations are meaningful. 

Also making its rounds in the news circuits is President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, which he signed into law after the close of the Glasgow meetings. This $1 trillion dollar investment in the country’s roads, bridges, water, and broadband infrastructure represents to the rest of the world America’s initial down payment on its climate commitments. However, neither this law, nor the larger spending package that is anticipated, commit the country strongly enough to reduce fossil fuel emissions or address climate change mitigation. 

Ultimately, whether the U.S. can make good its international commitments, as well as fulfill the Build Back Better agenda and deliver 40 percent of the benefits of all federal investments to disadvantaged communities, will depend on planning and implementation actions undertaken by state and local governments. While the U.S. did commit in Glasgow to address methane emissions and to double its climate financing support for adaptation in vulnerable nations, U.S. negotiators fell short of committing to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, which are instead extended in both the infrastructure law and budget reconciliation. 

With no national legislation on climate, weak international commitments that lack provisional details, and federal regulatory changes that will take time to implement, states and local governments will need to continue to lead on climate action with innovative plans and implementation strategies. 

Bolder climate actions can be found in Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which may reach the House floor before Thanksgiving. If the current draft of proposal is approved, the plan would represent the largest investment in climate action to date, including historic investments in clean energy development ($320 billion), additions and upgrades to the electric grid to improve resiliency ($5.5 billion), tax credits and incentives for interstate transmission lines ($800 million), electric vehicle infrastructure ($7.5 billion), and development of new low-carbon ($30 billion), carbon capture ($4 billion), and hydrogen ($8 billion) technologies. 

Despite President Biden’s bold climate commitments, his administration and Congress have much more work to address climate change and to make climate justice a reality. One international delegate at the Glasgow meetings told NPR, “America is a bipolar actor with two forces. And each take turns driving, and they're going in different directions.” 

The divide between parties remains vast, but the bipartisan infrastructure bill shows that both Republicans and Democrats can cooperate to build back better and steer in a positive direction. We urge our elected officials to do so before it’s too late.

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