President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington.

Climate Change

Biden's Earth Day summit tests US, global commitment to slowing climate change

For Earth Day this year, President Biden is convening leaders from around the world for a virtual conference on the climate emergency.

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President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington.

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Andrew Harnik/AP

President Biden has invited 40 world leaders to a virtual summit on climate change on Earth Day, April 22. As the first major diplomatic conference of the Biden administration, this summit positions climate change as a top geopolitical priority for the United States.

Invitations have gone out to 40 countries, including all of the major economies and a number of particularly vulnerable countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Marshall Islands.

“This is going to be a pretty broad discussion over two days on a range of topics, including not only what countries can do in terms of raising their ambition, but how we need to cooperate to innovate and rapidly deploy technologies needed to get us to net zero emissions by mid-century."

Alden Meyer, senior associate, E3G

“This is going to be a pretty broad discussion over two days on a range of topics, including not only what countries can do in terms of raising their ambition, but how we need to cooperate to innovate and rapidly deploy technologies needed to get us to net zero emissions by mid-century,” says Alden Meyer, a senior associate of E3G, a European climate change think tank.

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Until recently, China’s engagement at the summit was still an open question.

Yesterday, China announced President Xi Jinping will attend the summit. For President Biden, negotiations with China could be a bit of a high wire act. The US is at odds with China over human rights, its military presence in the South China Sea and its strong-arm tactics in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

For its part, China has been critical of US leadership on climate, and yet China itself has “not yet fully lived into the commitment that President Xi made last September at the United Nations General Assembly to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions in China no later than 2060,” Meyer says.

“Their most recent five-year plan, unveiled last month, really doesn't have the kind of increases in near-term ambition that we need to see to put them on that trajectory, and they are still building coal plants, domestically,” Meyer adds.

The countries of the world that are the most vulnerable right now from climate disruption are going to make the case that the world needs to step up its assistance on investments in resilience and adaptation to the severe climate impacts they are already experiencing, Meyer says.

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“They're going to particularly put pressure on the US and other developed countries to scale up climate finance and to make sure that a larger share of that financial assistance goes towards adaptation,” he explains. “They're shooting for 50% of climate finance assistance to be devoted to adaptation and dealing with climate impacts, as opposed to the roughly 20% to 25% share of finance that's going in that direction now.”

Loss and damage is also bound to be a crucial and controversial topic at the summit. Loss and damage refers to “the unavoidable impacts of climate change after you've done as much as you can on mitigation and adaptation,” Meyer explains. Countries that are already experiencing the impacts of sea-level rise and extreme weather events such as hurricanes and typhoons need help dealing with the cost of these impacts.

“Some of the developing countries and some of the international nongovernmental groups have said that the US and other Western economies that are largely responsible for historical emissions of greenhouse gases have a responsibility to compensate these countries for the damage they're experiencing."

Alden Meyer, senior associate, E3G

“Some of the developing countries and some of the international nongovernmental groups have said that the US and other Western economies that are largely responsible for historical emissions of greenhouse gases have a responsibility to compensate these countries for the damage they're experiencing,” Meyer explains.

This could cost developed countries hundreds of billions of dollars, so they’ve been reluctant to engage with this issue, Meyer notes. “It is an issue the vulnerable countries and others will put front and center on the agenda and there needs to be an adult discussion about what we're going to do about it going forward,” Meyer suggests.

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“It is a difficult issue,” he concedes, “but it is something we have to come to grips with. And I believe that we'll see some signals from the Biden-Harris administration that as long as we stay away from expressing it in terms of compensation or liability for past emissions, that the US may be willing to step up and provide more assistance going forward.”

Despite the challenges, Meyer believes, this is “a very significant moment because…the US is convening leaders from around the world to put [climate] front and center on the geopolitical agenda and try to signal that we're really running out of time to get the actions we need to live into the commitments countries made five years ago in Paris.”

“It's too bad this didn't happen 10, 20, 25 years ago,” Meyer says. “We could have done a lot more, but I am hopeful that this is going to represent a major step forward.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on Living on Earth from PRX. 

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