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Can Biden Achieve His Climate Ambition?

Nov 11, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University
  • Liu Yuning

    a PhD candidate, China Foreign Affairs University

Both the G20 and COP26 have attracted global attention to climate change. COP26, the largest annual international climate conference, is expected to chart a course for rapidly reining in greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change before many of its consequences become irreversible.

The event was delayed a full year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Noting that climate change is already destroying people’s live and the world now is striving to recover from the impact of COVID-19, U.S. President Joe Biden told world leaders in Glasgow, Scotland, that they can count on the U.S. to once again spearhead the fight against the environmental crisis.

But while Biden says he attaches great importance to multilateralism and global climate governance, and that he has taken ambitious action on climate since he took office in January, the world is wondering whether he can really achieve what he promised.

COP26 may be the last best hope to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 C (2.7 F) above pre-industrial levels. The White House unveiled its strategy for slashing carbon emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and achieving net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. It also announced plans for a new program (which would require congressional approval) to provide $3 billion annually to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

Biden touted those actions, along with the $550 billion in climate funding included in Democrats’ $1.75 trillion framework in their scaled-down budget bill. Yet Biden’s climate ambitions are not entirely aimed at tackling the crisis. What lies behind them are America’s own interests, which are closely related to its domestic and foreign policies.

From the domestic perspective, the Biden administration propose a foreign policy for the middle class, combined with relevant initiatives of the Green New Deal, to win more public support. It wants to combine climate change with domestic priorities such as job creation, economic transformation and infrastructure construction.

The specific policies promoted by the Biden team include achieving a 100 percent clean energy economy and net zero emissions by 2050, improving the country’s ability to cope with the climate crisis, taking climate change as the core priority of national security, securing environmental justice and fulfilling its obligations to workers and communities.

In the international arena, Biden took the issue of climate change as an important starting point for the U.S. to return to multilateralism, restore its alliances and even regain its global leadership. Therefore, at the COP26 conference, Biden said that the U.S. had not only returned to the negotiating table but also hoped to lead by example.

In the multilateral field, the Biden administration returned to the Paris agreement and took the initiative to convene a global climate summit in April to make direct contact with the world’s major carbon emitters and persuade them to make more ambitious commitments. At the same time, Biden hopes to take effective steps to prevent other countries from violating their commitments.

In the bilateral field, John Kerry, the current special presidential envoy for climate, visited Europe and Asia within the first 100 days of Biden’s taking office. Since then, he has frequently carried out climate shuttle diplomacy, which has become a major feature of U.S. foreign policy.

However, there are numerous obstacles standing in the way of  Biden’s climate ambitions. On one hand, the domestic political atmosphere is not conducive to Biden’s promotion of climate governance. The implementation of its domestic policies will largely decide the effect of climate governance. At present, a political consensus in the U.S. has not been formed. According to a 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of people in the U.S. support more efforts by the government to deal with climate change, but many Republicans are still firmly opposed to the policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The complexity of domestic politics in the U.S. will weaken the confidence of the international community in the implementation of pragmatic policies. Biden failed to push Congress to reach agreement on the social spending bill, which includes climate policies, before attending COP26, reflecting the disputes between the two major parties, and even within the Democratic Party, over climate governance.

Moreover, Biden and his party are facing greater pressure in the midterm presidential election next year. If the Republicans regain the majority of seats in either house of Congress, legislation related to climate governance will become even more difficult to pass. And if the Republicans wins the presidential election in 2024, U.S. climate policy may yet return to the old path of the Trump administration.

On the other hand, the Biden administration takes climate change as an area of great power competition and increasingly perceives multilateralism as a tool to gain the upper hand. Biden’s perception of the world and the U.S. role is not fundamentally different from Trump’s. Both believe that competition is the main stream of international relations and the U.S. must enhance its own strength.

Unlike Donald Trump, Biden has adjusted the approach to competition and no longer fights alone. The U.S. has begun to consolidate a Western consensus through values-based diplomacy and multilateralism to foster more burden sharing among allies. Under the guidance of competitive ideology, climate governance has also become important. This explains why Biden criticized China and Russia when participating in COP26, and why the U.S. competitive perspective on global issues will eventually cost the credibility and appeal of the U.S. in the field of climate governance. 

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