Big global emitters are calling into question the US’s commitment to tackling climate change, following legislative setbacks capped by the Supreme Court ruling against federal regulation of carbon emissions.
With four months until the UN’s COP27 climate summit in Egypt, the US failure to implement its signature climate policies is weighing on the outcome of a summit that is struggling to gain momentum because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
After the court ruled to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon dioxide produced by power plants, several big emitters including China warned that this damaged the US government’s international credibility.
“It’s not enough just to shout slogans to tackle climate change,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in response to a question at a press briefing. “We urge developed countries, including the US, to face up to their historical responsibilities.”
US president Joe Biden came into office promising “America is back” on climate, signalled by a move to immediately rejoin the Paris accord that aims to limit global temperature rises. But the administration has been unable to pass its signature climate legislation, the Build Back Better plan, in Congress.
The bill promised unprecedented investments in childhood education, public healthcare as well as climate change mitigation.
Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s chief climate envoy, said passing the bill was more important than ever following the Supreme Court decision.
“It would be a very important signal to the world that the US was moving forward . . . in meeting the targets that president Biden promised,” Morgan told the Financial Times. “It is critical that we see legislation put in place, regulation put in place. That builds confidence, whether it is [in] the US or other countries,” she added.
The UN has also expressed its disappointment at the decision by the highest US court that was labelled “unconscionable” by Greenpeace USA.
“This is a setback in our fight against climate change,” a spokesperson for the UN secretary-general said of the ruling. “Decisions like the one in the US or any other major emitting economy make it harder to meet the goals of the Paris agreement,” the spokesperson added.
Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry has criss-crossed the world to lobby others to improve their climate targets, and he succeeded in inking a deal with Beijing in the final days of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. The US is the world’s second-largest emitter, behind China.
Biden was in Glasgow to tout what was then new US pledges to slash greenhouse gasses by at least 50 per cent by 2030. But with the administration’s failure to pass its flagship climate package — and a pledge to increase production of oil and gas to reduce the world’s dependence on Russian energy — that goal seems to be slipping out of reach.
“The absence of the [Build Back Better] bill, and the Supreme Court ruling, make it extremely difficult to see how the US will meet its 2030 goals,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University. “Which means John Kerry is increasingly naked in the marketplace. Everybody knows that domestically [the US] can’t deliver.”
Richard Revesz, professor and director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law, said the Supreme Court ruling would limit but not remove the EPA’s power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions at power plants.
“The Biden administration is committed to doing whatever it can do, but it faces institutional constraints,” he said. “The administration still has lots of tool in its toolkit.”
Ahead of the COP27 summit in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the setbacks in the US are becoming enmeshed with other global challenges.
As well as the war in Ukraine, fears of a world recession, looming food shortages and soaring prices have ensured that, for many countries, the climate crisis has taken a back seat.
“It’s a bit of a disaster at the moment,” said Farhana Yamin, an environmental lawyer and veteran of COP meetings. “There seems to be a completely uncoordinated set of intentions that are halfhearted and sporadic. It’s looking pretty dire.”
She added: “When the US is not able to deliver, it means other countries slow down, and they feel they can drop out of the race [on climate action].”
The 196 countries that signed the Paris accord are supposed to come up with improved climate targets ahead of the Egypt summit. However, only a handful have emerged.
Some of the countries that in Glasgow pledged to “phase down” the use of coal, including Germany, are planning to increase their use of the fuel as a way of cutting reliance on Russian gas.
Germany is planning to reopen mothballed coal plants this winter, as it faces the prospect that Russia will cut off its gas supplies, although Morgan insisted this was only to address “acute” shortages.
Both the energy and climate crises will be on the agenda when G20 foreign ministers meet this week in Bali, Indonesia.
“We’re very much at a crossroads,” said Morgan, who will be in attendance. She urged G20 countries to adopt a decarbonisation target for key industries, following the recent G7 pledge to decarbonise the power sector by 2035.
“It’s imperative that countries keep the climate goals front and centre,” she said.
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