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On Climate, Declaring ‘America Is Back’ Doesn’t Make It So

To make serious progress, bipartisanship will be needed.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School.
U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders, including a decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement, at the White House in Washington on Jan. 20.
U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders, including a decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement, at the White House in Washington on Jan. 20. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

“America is back,” U.S. President Joe Biden told the international community last week during the Zoom version of the Munich Security Conference, the annual confab of the world’s foreign-policy elite. As if to underline the promise, the United States formally rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change the very same day. But declaring to be back does not make it so. Delivering on Biden’s promise requires Washington to commit internationally to an ambitious carbon reduction goal—and making good on that pledge requires the U.S. Congress to act. At a moment when bipartisan cooperation on climate change seems a pipe dream, the new administration’s credibility depends on it.

While many world leaders celebrated Biden’s return to the Paris process, their expectations are high for what he must deliver, particularly after four years of climate obstruction under former President Donald Trump. The test will come in two months when the United States is set to announce its 2030 emissions target, known in climate diplomacy jargon as a “nationally determined contribution” (NDC)—part of the preparations for the next United Nations climate meeting in November. Under the Paris Agreement, each country agreed to set an NDC every five years. This framework is intended to enable countries to gradually ramp up their ambition and create transparency so that nations can be confident that others are following suit rather than free-riding on their efforts.

The NDC must be ambitious but credible. In the last round in 2015, then-President Barack Obama barely threaded the needle, announcing a target to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This was on the low end of a course consistent with long-term emissions goals and at the high end of what was achievable using existing federal authorities at the time. The United States is not on track today to achieve that goal.

“America is back,” U.S. President Joe Biden told the international community last week during the Zoom version of the Munich Security Conference, the annual confab of the world’s foreign-policy elite. As if to underline the promise, the United States formally rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change the very same day. But declaring to be back does not make it so. Delivering on Biden’s promise requires Washington to commit internationally to an ambitious carbon reduction goal—and making good on that pledge requires the U.S. Congress to act. At a moment when bipartisan cooperation on climate change seems a pipe dream, the new administration’s credibility depends on it.

While many world leaders celebrated Biden’s return to the Paris process, their expectations are high for what he must deliver, particularly after four years of climate obstruction under former President Donald Trump. The test will come in two months when the United States is set to announce its 2030 emissions target, known in climate diplomacy jargon as a “nationally determined contribution” (NDC)—part of the preparations for the next United Nations climate meeting in November. Under the Paris Agreement, each country agreed to set an NDC every five years. This framework is intended to enable countries to gradually ramp up their ambition and create transparency so that nations can be confident that others are following suit rather than free-riding on their efforts.

The NDC must be ambitious but credible. In the last round in 2015, then-President Barack Obama barely threaded the needle, announcing a target to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This was on the low end of a course consistent with long-term emissions goals and at the high end of what was achievable using existing federal authorities at the time. The United States is not on track today to achieve that goal.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement requires that the Biden administration announce a new NDC that includes a 2030 emissions target, among other elements. To be viewed as ambitious by the international community, this target will need to be 50 percent below 2005 levels or close to it—as Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris Agreement, made clear when she welcomed Washington back into the process last week. “Now they need to walk the talk,” she said.

A target to reduce emissions by 45 to 50 percent by 2030 is important for two reasons. First, Biden has declared a 2050 target of net-zero emissions, and the straight-line pathway from 2020 emissions to net zero in 2050 runs through exactly that range in 2030. Second, following the 2018 U.N. report that showed the need for emissions to decline by roughly half by 2030 to avoid severe consequences of climate change, many nations have upped their own ambitions. Notably, the European Union and United Kingdom recently declared 2030 targets that promise reductions around 40 percent below 2019 levels. For the United States, a similar decline between 2019 and 2030 corresponds to a target between 45 and 50 percent below 2005 levels.

The Biden administration must choose the right combination of ambition and realism in setting its 2030 emissions target in April.

The problem for the Biden administration is that an ambitious number alone won’t do. The target also needs to be credible, meaning that there is a realistic policy framework to achieve it. That will require Democrats and Republicans to work together to tackle climate change.

At present, there are three likely policy levers for the United States to lower emissions through 2030. First, existing law gives the administration authority to take many significant actions, such as regulating vehicles and power plants, using government procurement to boost clean energy, and putting climate change at the center of foreign policy, international finance, and trade. In his first week in office, Biden issued two broad executive orders adopting a whole-of-government approach to combating climate change that aimed to deploy virtually every tool in the administration’s existing toolkit of domestic and foreign policy.

Second, Biden has pledged to follow on his current push for a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill with an even larger infrastructure investment package that would include significant spending on clean-energy priorities, such as building out a zero-carbon electricity grid. The collapse of the grid in Texas during last week’s deep freeze may give further impetus to grid infrastructure investments. There remains some disagreement among Democrats, however, about how much to spend and what to spend it on, as well as whether to pass an infrastructure package along purely partisan lines through a process known as budget reconciliation—or whether to build bipartisan support.

Third, many U.S. states are continuing to pursue ambitious climate action, such as standards for clean electricity and buildings, emissions from vehicles, and carbon pricing programs. In the U.S. federal system, state and municipal governments have tremendous authority over sources of emissions such as the electricity system, buildings, urban infrastructure, transportation, and mass transit, which is why local policies can contribute meaningfully to achieving U.S. emission goals.

The problem is that congressional spending on infrastructure, executive authority, and state action can achieve a lot but these are all insufficient to achieve a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030. Reaching that kind of magnitude would require more comprehensive climate change legislation by Congress. And it can be done: A recent study by Columbia University and the Rhodium Group, for example, showed that combining a handful of the policies already in place in Europe, including a carbon price and targeted sectoral standards, could put the United States on a pathway to about 45 percent reductions by 2030. Other studies have shown similar pathways with different policy mixes.

Even though Democrats control both houses of Congress—in the case of the Senate, by the slimmest of majorities—passing meaningful climate legislation will be difficult without Republican support, particularly as swing-vote Democratic senators such as Joe Manchin have declared their opposition to eliminating the filibuster rule, which requires a supermajority for most legislation. Biden needs to forge deals with centrists in Congress who have not before supported strong limits on emissions. Otherwise he will find himself with a climate policy toolbox that may not be up to the scale of the challenge.

Some activists argue that Democrats could legislate a national standard to decarbonize electricity without Republicans by using the budget reconciliation process, but it’s unclear whether such an approach would pass parliamentary muster—or garner the support of all Senate Democrats even if it did.

There’s not enough time to pursue incremental solutions while waiting for Republicans to come around on climate change.

Moreover, electricity generates only about 25 percent of U.S. emissions, so further action would be needed to drive reductions. Covering the entire energy system could be achieved with a gradually rising carbon price in the range of what has been proposed on Capitol Hill—around $50 per ton of carbon dioxide—which would not only be likely to deliver 45 to 50 percent emissions reductions by 2030 when combined with the outlined executive and state policies, but also be consistent with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. A growing number of moderate Republicans, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney, as well as business community stakeholders such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have recently signaled support for a carbon tax.

The Biden administration must choose the right combination of ambition and realism in setting its 2030 emissions target in April, a decision that will be closely scrutinized from Beijing to Brussels and may well determine what other nations choose to do. Driving Biden’s choice is the fundamental tension in U.S. climate policy today: On the one hand, comprehensive new legislation, such as a national carbon tax and strong sectoral standards, is needed to achieve ambitious carbon reductions and ensure policy is durable enough to avoid being undone every few years when political control in Washington changes. And meaningful new legislation requires working with Republicans in Congress to find areas of bipartisan agreement. On the other hand, climate change results from cumulative emissions. If we are to avoid severe climate impacts, there’s not enough time to pursue incremental solutions while waiting for Republicans to come around on climate change.

When it comes to climate change, America may indeed be back. But giving meaning to that pledge will require both the White House and Congress to do their part. As naive as it may seem in today’s dysfunctional U.S. political environment, that means real climate progress requires not only executive and state action, but also cooperation between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. With his decades of experience forging bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill, there may be no better president than Biden to do the impossible on this front. To meet the urgency of the climate crisis, the Biden administration must be both ambitious and credible: first by committing to reduce emissions by around 50 percent by 2030 and then by reaching across the aisle to get the job done.

Jason Bordoff is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs, and a former senior director on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council and special assistant to President Barack Obama. Twitter: @JasonBordoff

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