In a May/June Foreign Affairs essay, we argued that to meet the existential threat of climate change, the United States needed to mobilize domestically and make climate a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Since then, Joe Biden assumed the presidency and aggressively broke with his predecessor’s climate denialism and boosterism of the fossil fuel industry. With the close of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, it is an appropriate moment to evaluate both Biden’s record and global progress on the issue thus far.
There are hopeful signs. The Glasgow conference made incremental progress toward lowering the upper bounds of global average temperature increases and helped spur global momentum to deal with the climate challenge at the necessary speed and scale. And Biden has in fact made climate central to his domestic policy. He and many global leaders are starting to prioritize the issue in a way that the challenge of warming temperatures demands.
Scorecard from Glasgow
The attendees at Glasgow did not achieve the conference’s central objective: securing emission targets for 2030 that could potentially hold global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial times—the number now widely considered to be an upper limit for preserving a reasonably safe world. According to the authoritative Climate Action Tracker, the new 2030 targets countries submitted for COP26 would lower the projected global temperature increase only from 2.7 degrees to 2.4 degrees Celsius. That’s the right direction, to be sure, but we are well past the point where directional progress is sufficient. The shortfall in 2030 targets stressed country representatives in the conference center and angered the tens of thousands of activists who took to the streets.
Yet that was not the whole story. Many representatives submitted new 2030 targets aligned with reducing emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius, including the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and Korea. Indeed, had this list included one more country—China—Glasgow would have been welcomed as a resounding success, generating a wave of momentum and making it difficult for other major developing countries such as India, Brazil, and Indonesia to stay on the sidelines. Of course China—which produces 27 percent of global emissions, more than the entire developed world combined—did not materially change the target Beijing laid out during the 2015 Paris agreement, when it promised its emissions would peak by around 2030. But the point is that we were by no means a world away from greater success. Rather, we were a major country away.
If China and other major countries fail to come forward with significantly higher targets for 2030, then it will be hard to sustain the feeling of guarded hope.
Faced with numbers that did not align with 1.5 degrees Celsius, the United Kingdom and many other countries held fast to the importance of meeting the goal. Notably, the final agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls on countries to revisit and strengthen their emission targets next year, consistent with the Paris climate accord temperature goal, rather than waiting until 2025, the next of the five-year review periods established by the Paris agreement. The Glasgow Climate Pact was also the first COP decision calling for the phasedown of coal. India and China weakened that mandate at the last minute—the original language demanded the phaseout of coal—but the move still sent a strong message.
There were also positive announcements by coalitions of the willing that signal an additional path to future progress. Over a hundred countries pledged to sharply curtail methane emissions; even more committed to ending deforestation. In addition, the High Ambition Coalition—which encompasses progressive developing and developed countries—asserted itself in Glasgow with a leaders’ statement calling for a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius and singling out G-20 countries that have failed to submit adequate targets. The coalition has a critical ongoing role to play in raising its voice and demanding deep, rapid emission cuts from all large emitters.
A Crucial Year Ahead
Next year’s climate conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, will in effect become the second half of a two-year COP. If China and other major countries fail to come forward with significantly higher targets for 2030, then it will be hard to sustain the feeling of guarded hope from Glasgow or claim that the warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius is plausible. Consequently, a sense of urgency is going to hang over those talks and the months leading up to them.
U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, overcame resistance from members of their governments and announced a U.S.-Chinese declaration toward the end of the Glasgow conference, offering some hope for U.S.-Chinese climate collaboration. If Beijing decides it would be in China’s interest to act decisively—as it clearly would be given the reputational damage China will incur if it is seen as the leading impediment to a safe world—then perhaps the two sides will be able to make progress.
Biden has been appropriately no-nonsense in his rhetoric about climate change.
Financial assistance to developing nations is also going to be key. Developing countries are unhappy that donor nations fell short in meeting their pledge to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020, a total they are now expected to reach in 2023. But the more fundamental finance problem is that the only way to mobilize the much larger amounts of capital developing countries need to build green and resilient economies is to provide loan guarantees and other forms of so-called blended finance, to reduce risk and therefore attract large-scale private investment. Philanthropies are starting to play a role here, as evidenced by the Rockefeller Foundation–led Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet announced at Glasgow, which aims to mobilize $100 billion in the next decade to accelerate investments in the developing world. In addition, developing countries, with technical support from the international community, will also have an essential role to play in undertaking regulatory and other reforms needed to create more attractive investment environments.
For now, international financial institutions are not configured to help marshal private capital to meet the challenge of climate change. The leaders of the G-7 and G-20 will need to reform institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to make that possible. Catalyzing the necessary resources will require the support of government leaders, international financial institutions, and the private sector.
It may be that all efforts to spur the necessary action from major emitters will not be sufficient. In our Foreign Affairs piece last year, we discussed the possibility of creating border adjustment mechanisms, which would impose carbon tariffs on imports from countries with inadequate climate policies. The European Union and the United States are both considering this option. If designed properly, this initiative could spur decarbonization in countries seeking to preserve their access to markets that account for one-third of the global economy.
Positive Signs Domestically
A major reason the Glasgow conference did make incremental progress was the change of leadership in the United States. One of President Biden’s first acts in office was rejoining the Paris agreement; his administration also put on a full-court diplomatic press to make the Glasgow conference a success. Biden has been appropriately no-nonsense in his rhetoric about climate change, and his personnel choices demonstrate his commitment to the issue. The appointment of former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate and a principal on the National Security Council signaled that the issue would be at the center of Biden’s foreign policy. At the Earth Day summit, the United States put forward an ambitious national commitment to cut emissions 50–52 percent by 2030. At the UN General Assembly meeting in September, the president announced that by 2024, the United States would double the assistance it provides to developing nations to cope with warming temperatures.
Biden also created the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and appointed climate champions to head all key government agencies. The president proposed more than $500 billion in clean energy and environmental justice investments that, if enacted, would give the administration the tools it needs to meet its 2030 pledge. A small portion of these investments was included in the recently enacted bipartisan infrastructure package, but the vast majority of investments in clean power, clean transportation, and clean buildings are part of the Build Back Better bill still in the budget reconciliation process, which recently passed the House of Representatives but awaits action in the Senate.
The most important item on the climate agenda right now is the fate of the president’s Build Back Better legislation.
Biden deserves praise for his work on climate domestically. But when the climate agenda comes into conflict with traditional national security concerns, particularly issues involving great-power competition, the administration’s commitment has wavered. The administration’s decision to confront China across a range of security, economic, and human rights issues is understandable, but that priority has had unfortunate consequences for safeguarding the environment. A glaring example is how the Biden administration has not pressed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to improve his country’s dismal record on reducing emissions. Morrison, of course, recently committed to partnering with the United Kingdom and the United States to form a pact known as AUKUS that allows Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Strengthening U.S. security architecture in the Asia-Pacific may make sense, but there was no excuse to look the other way as Morrison leads perhaps the worst-performing advanced economy on climate change. If climate is going to be a central priority, the United States need to demonstrate that commitment.
The Biden administration has done an excellent overall job on climate change so far but needs to hold firm on making the crisis a top-tier concern and not let it fade in the face of other national security priorities. The single most important item on the climate agenda right now, both in the United States and worldwide, is the fate of the president’s Build Back Better legislation. It is essential to enable the United States to meet its new 2030 pledge, vital to U.S. credibility on climate change abroad, and therefore critical to the world’s capacity to move at the scale and speed required to decarbonize the global economy. Glasgow was far from a resounding success, but we see that as a cause for concern, not alarm. COPs are often linked, one to the next. Falling short one year can inspire determination to succeed at the following COP. This next year will be crucial, both domestically and internationally, to meeting the overriding global challenge of our times.