The clock is ticking on the Biden administration to enact aggressive climate action before the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, when the world will be scrutinizing the US' commitment to slowing climate change.
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Global leaders will meet Nov. 1-12 for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) with the goal of cementing 2030 emissions targets that put major economies on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050 in order to contain temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Representative Sean Casten, Democrat-Illinois, told S&P Global Platts that the US must head to Glasgow with binding legislation that commits the country to aggressive climate action – not just aspirational targets and pledges – if President Joe Biden wants to be taken seriously as a global leader in fighting the climate crisis.
Casten, a member of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, contended that the US has not led on climate policy since the Bush administration in 2001 pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1997 that called for greenhouse gas emission reductions. He added that the country's efforts to combat climate change since then have lacked the consistency needed for the world to view the US as accountable in this space.
"There's a very keen awareness that when the United States gets to Glasgow, the rest of the world is not going to be watching our lips ... they're going to be watching our feet," he said in an episode of the Platts Capitol Crude podcast set to run Aug. 16.
"And so we really need to send our US delegation to Glasgow with binding legislation that shows that the US understands this problem and that our political environment takes it seriously and is acting at a scale demanded by the science," Casten said.
Running out of time
Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, said COP26 and the US midterm elections a year later leave little remaining time for the Biden administration to adopt sweeping climate policy aimed at slashing US greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030.
"To do that, they're going to need to really mobilize a massive program of domestic policy and do it quickly," Book said on an Aug. 9 Capitol Crude podcast. "This is really not just about 2030 but about the decades beyond. The Biden administration is trying to lay the infrastructure for broader transition, and to go to the world stage in Glasgow in November and say to the world, 'We want you to be ambitious too.'"
A massive, $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package has cleared the Senate, making some inroads towards a clean energy economy but falling far short of the measures seen as necessary to slash carbon emissions at the scale and pace scientists have said are required to ward off the worst impacts of climate change.
New fuel economy and tailpipe emissions standards and transportation sector initiatives that seek to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles have similarly been criticized as not going far enough to meet the climate challenge. The Biden administration has pointed to a budget reconciliation bill as the true heavy hitter for realizing the president's ambitious decarbonization goals, but details on that legislation are scarce and prospects for passage still face hurdles.
Casten said that just as the country's politicization of mask wearing and getting vaccinated "has not been constructive to global public health" during the pandemic, "the same sort of seeds of anti-scientific distrust on climate cheapen our ability to be seen as a leader at the table."
Casten acknowledged that the steps to put the US on a path to a decarbonized future would result in "a massive wealth transfer from energy producers to energy consumers."
While "every single American is an energy consumer, a small minority are energy producers who have a lot of pull over certain members of the United States House and Senate," Casten said. "And until we confront that, acknowledge it, and shut it down, I will not be 100% certain that we are capable of doing what's necessary."
John Kerry, the US' special envoy for climate, said the world's major economies must come to Glasgow with "concrete national plans" -- not just ambitious targets -- for reaching net zero by 2050.
"The time for talking has long since passed," Kerry said in a July 20 speech. "We need to match suitable investment both from the public and private sector ... and we need to really rethink ... how we de-risk, how we allocate capital, and how we will grow our ways out of this."
Former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the nationally determined contributions will be critical at Glasgow, and the US will have to prove how it can meet its own.
"It is extremely difficult to reach those 2030 goals," he said on an Aug. 12 episode of CERAWeek Conversations. "We can't do it unless we come out really hard."
Moniz pointed to bright spots like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the Biden administration's innovation agenda and growing non-traditional private-sector investment in low-carbon deployment.
"There's no way that we are going to get the kind of deployment pace that we need to meet the NDCs that are coming forward for 2030 without rapidly unlocking private capital," Moniz said. "We need to resolve this in the next few years to have impact by 2030."