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US pledges to halve emissions by 2030 as world leaders gather virtually for Earth Day

Image credit: Photo Boards | Unsplash

At a virtual summit of world leaders aimed at driving greater climate action, US President Joe Biden has announced a new target to cut greenhouse gas pollution in the US by at least half by 2030.

The US president’s new target aims to achieve a 50-52 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, a move which the White House said would create millions of jobs, cut energy costs and boost nature.

President Biden told fellow world leaders that the move could help build a more prosperous, equitable society, stressing the jobs that could be created. 

“The signs are unmistakeable, the science is undeniable. The cost of inaction keeps mounting," he said. “The United States isn’t waiting, we are resolving to take action, not only our federal government but our cities and our states all across our country, small business, large corporations, American workers in every field”.

President Biden added that while the US only represented an estimated 15 per cent of the world’s emissions, no nation could solve the crisis on its own: “All of us, particularly those who represent the world’s largest economies, we have to step up. Those that do take action and make bold investments in their people, in clean energy futures, will win the good jobs of tomorrow and make their economies more resilient and more competitive.”

He described the coming years as “the decisive decade” where decisions had to be made to avoid the worst excesses of climate change by keeping temperature rises to 1.5°C: “This is a moral imperative, it’s an economic imperative. It’s a moment of peril, but also a moment of extraordinary possibility. Time is short, but I believe we can do this, and I believe we will do this.”

Analysts described the US pledge as “major progress” on previous US commitments, helping to reduce the gap between the action needed to curb dangerous global warming and the existing commitments of countries, although it is still not quite enough to bring the US in line with achieving international climate goals.

The summit comes after the International Energy Agency warned that global carbon emissions were set for their second biggest increase on record after a sharp drop in 2020 due to the pandemic, with demand for fossil fuels, including coal, pushing climate pollution up to close to 2019 levels.

The two-day US-led summit is also hearing from the leaders of major economies including China, Japan, Russia, Canada, India and Australia. Sessions at the event will focus on such pressing concerns as increasing climate action; finance for developing countries; the role of natural solutions such as restoring forests and peatlands, and the security impacts of climate change. United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres and Pope Francis will also make appearances.

Representing the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson dubbed the US pledge a “game-changing” announcement as he set out the UK’s own ambition to cut greenhouse gases by 78 per cent by 2035.

“As host of COP26 we want to see similar ambitions around the world," he said. "We are working with everybody from the smallest nations to the biggest emitters to secure commitments that will keep change to within 1.5°C.

“It will mean the richest nations coming together and exceeding the 100 billion US dollar commitment that they already made in 2009,” he added, referring to past support given to developing countries.

Johnson went on to discuss the direct link between climate change and nature: “If we’re going to tackle climate change we have to deal with the disaster of habitat loss and species loss across our planet. We’ve got to be consistently original and optimistic about new technology and develop new solutions.

“I’m not saying any of this is going to be easy and there is obviously going to be a political challenge. It’s vital for all of us to show that this is not all about some expensive, politically correct, green act of bunny-hugging," before adding that "there’s nothing wrong with bunny-hugging".

Johnson concluded by saying: “What I’m driving at is this is about growth and jobs and I think the President (Biden) was absolutely right to stress that. We can build back better from this pandemic by building back greener.

“Let’s use this extraordinary moment and the incredible technology that we’re working on to make this decade the moment of decisive change in the fight against climate change, and let’s do it together.”

Leaders of other countries were similarly keen to share their climate intentions. Before the summit, Japan had already unveiled its more aggressive 2030 target which aims to cut emissions by 46 per cent on 2013 levels, almost doubling its previous 26 per cent reduction goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, announced in October.

Chinese president Xi Jinping called for a “people-centred” approach to the climate crisis, saying, “We must treat nature as our root, respect it, protect it and follow its laws; we should protect nature and preserve the environment like we protect our eyes.

“Second, we must be committed to green development – green mountains are gold mountains, to protect the environment is to protect productivity and to boost the environment is to boost productivity. The truth is as simple as that.”

He added: “We need to give full recognition to developing countries’ contribution to climate action and accommodate their particular difficulties and concern. Developed countries need to increase climate ambition and action and make concrete efforts to help developing countries accelerate the transition to green and low-carbon development".

President Xi said that China would “continue to prioritise ecological conservation and pursue a green and low-carbon path to development", aiming to "peak" its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

“We will strictly control coal-fired carbon power projects," he said. "We will strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th five-year plan period and phase it down in the 15th five-year plan period.”

Brazil's controversial president Jair Bolsonaro - who has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic to the severe detriment of the population, as well as having a questionable political record on environmental issues - told the summit that Brazil intends to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, telling his summit peers that “you can count on Brazil” in the fight against climate change.

Bolsonaro added that Brazil would eliminate illegal deforestation of the Amazon rainforest by 2030 through “full and proper enforcement” of the law.

On behalf of Russia, Vladimir Putin said the country was developing a carbon pricing and trading system, claiming such a system could allow Russia to be carbon-neutral as early as 2025. Putin said that since the 1990s Russia had already halved its annual carbon dioxide emissions from 3.1 billion tonnes to 1.6 billion tonnes.

Putin also claimed that Russia absorbs around 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, playing a huge role in absorbing dangerous greenhouse gases: “Let me say that without exaggeration Russia makes a gigantic contribution to absorbing global emissions”.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen spoke of plans to make the EU “fit for 55” to deliver on its aim to cut carbon emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.

She told the summit: “We will make emission trading work, not only for energy generation and industry, but also for transport and for buildings. (Carbon) must have its price, because nature cannot pay the price any longer.”

Von der Leyen added that the EU has earmarked 1.8 trillion euros (£1.56 trillion) for climate-related goals, adding “the fight against climate change will be the engine for our global recovery”.

Addressing the return of the US to the forefront of climate discussions, having been largely absent during the previous US president's single term in office, Von der Leyen remarked that “It is so good to have the US back on our side in the fight against climate change. Together we can go faster and get further and together we will win the future.”

In this spirit of cooperation, prior to the summit, the US and China issued a joint statement pledging to work together and with other countries on climate issues.

It is widely accepted that countries will have to double down on extending and achieving emission-reduction targets and other climate-friendly goals, as existing plans are not sufficient to curb global temperature rises to below the 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels enshrined in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Earth Day began in 1970, the brainchild of Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson, as a way to channel young people’s energy into environmental campaigning. The date, 22 April, was deliberately chosen to maximise student participation, being far enough in advance of final summer exams not to be considered an unnecessary distraction. Approximately 20 million people in the US took part in environment-related demonstrations that first year. Within a few months, then-president Richard Nixon announced the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since the turn of the 21st century, Earth Day has become an increasingly high-profile annual event commanding the attention of campaigners, politicians and business leaders around the world.

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