Brookings experts comment on Biden climate summit


On April 22 and 23, President Biden hosted a virtual leadership summit on climate. Shortly before the summit, the United States announced a plan to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, as its new nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. President Biden also urged invited leaders, including Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, to use the summit as an opportunity to demonstrate how their countries will contribute to achieving a stronger climate ambition.

On April 20, experts from the Brookings Institution joined a taped call with reporters to explore the summit’s domestic and international context, areas of contention, and specific issues that should be monitored.

Samantha Gross (Embed a TweetDirector of Energy and Climate Security Initiative: It seems to me that President Biden is in trouble. He has to deal with the Congress he has, but I think Congress – and especially the Republicans – has not kept up with the growing concern among the American public about the climate. Therefore, I do not see comprehensive climate legislation. Lots of people have asked me about the maximum trade or tax, and I don’t see that possible.

… I am curious to know what lies in the pages behind the NDCs, and the policies planned to implement the NDCs. I expect to see a lot of carrots mixed into this policy, a lot of financing and tax breaks for low-carbon technology and infrastructure, and a lot of low-carbon technology research and commercialization. Regulation under current laws is also possible and possible, but I fear the regulations will face the same fate that I faced under the Obama administration, when we saw the Trump administration trying to undo the things Obama did. Most importantly, I worry that the fear of such a reversal and the endless litigation that often comes hand in hand with environmental regulation will dilute the investment signal that the regulation was intended to send.

Nathan Holtman, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program: I think it is worth pausing to indicate that we are at the crossroads of a number of positive trends in the climate world this year. I think it pays to stop and see what these trends are, and think about what they might mean in terms of long-term success, but also what the challenges are as well.

First of all, obviously, the thing that we all realize and talk about right now is that we have US federal involvement on climate … What is happening in the United States is not only better viewed through the lens of who is the president, although this is very important. – or even for that matter, out of federalism, including Congress – but it’s better seen as what’s happening across the country. I think if we look at that story over the past five to seven years, what we’ve seen is yes, a story of presidential ambition that’s high, then low, and now high again. But more importantly, is the changing trend during those years of increasingly accelerated actions of sub-national entities in the United States – states, cities, corporations, and more. I think if we look at what makes change happen in the United States, it is really important to note that this change is not something that just happens at the federal level.

Ammar BhattacharyaSenior Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development of the Global Economy and Development Program: The leadership pumped out, not just by the summit, but the work done at the event – and especially John Kerry’s efforts – is already starting to make a big, big difference on the world stage. There is a new feeling of energy.

… the idea is to convince everyone of the collective goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century and translate it into concrete commitments. The first step in this is setting targets for 2030 … so urgency is the first point, and as the United States presses this matter, it can put more pressure on others to escalate, including China, including obtaining significant emissions sources. Others – like India, Indonesia, and the like – are on board. Second, the conversation has changed a lot in terms of opportunity for climate action, particularly in the context of COVID. In building back or building back better, there is ample opportunity to address vulnerabilities and risks that were accumulating prior to the pandemic. There is an opportunity to put the world on a path with far greater benefits in terms of innovation, in terms of productivity, in terms of the fundamental benefits of climate action. So, there has been a shift from the costs of climate action now, and a focus on the zero-sum game, to benefits and opportunities, including collaborative business opportunities.

Sanjay Patnaik (Embed a TweetBernard Schwartz, Director of the Center for Regulation and Markets and Head of Economic Policy Development: As previous speakers have said, it’s a great signal that the United States is back at the negotiating table on the international climate front, and that Biden in particular is really focused on making decisions based on science only and building bridges with our allies. But I think the big question that will be on everyone’s mind is: How do we get there? How do we get there with credibility? Because over the past 20 years, we’ve seen really strong swings in US climate policy, oscillating between taking substantive policy measures on climate, and doing little to tackle climate change.

There are two areas wherein [Biden] I’ve already taken action: one of them is clearly an executive order. The problem with executive orders is that they can be very easily reversed by someone who comes next. He’s taken some very important elements, especially in terms of signals – like joining the Paris agreement, like canceling the Keystone pipeline, and also issuing an executive order that really focuses on tackling the climate crisis, which takes the following: the government’s approach. I think that’s where it has had an impact so far, because it’s really trying to redirect all federal agencies and parts of government toward climate as a major issue that needs to be addressed.

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