The Biden administration's unequivocal message about the US being back in the climate fight was received with both hope and skepticism.
During the Climate Leaders Summit, the Biden administration unveiled its new pledge to cut emissions in half by 2030 and to reach net zero emissions by no later than 2050. While this new commitment is a significant step forward, it is still insufficient to be compatible with the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal. Achieving this objective will require the world to attain a 45% reduction by 2030. So far, global pledges included in National Climate Contributions (NDCs) have amounted to 1% of the needed carbon emissions reduction. The newest US NDC reduces this 2030 emission gap and places the US in the top four most ambitious economy-wide commitments for 2030.
However, given the historical US fair share, this target should have been at least 57-63% reduction below 2005 levels. The Biden administration sent an unequivocal message: the US is back. Yet, numerous challenges lie ahead including the US climate leadership role which is connected to the limits of the federal office to drive emissions down domestically.
Despite the incredibly ambitious pitch, the other world's biggest emitters - China, India and Russia - weren’t persuaded to set new targets. Some countries are still responding and showing interest in collaborating with the US. The Climate Leaders summit brought forward important commitments including both Japan and Canada’s increased 2030 targets to 46% and 40-45%, respectively. We heard South Korea's commitment to end all public financing to coal-fired power abroad. Brazil, who’s leadership recently railed against environmental policy, vowed to emission neutrality by 2050 and doubled funding for environmental enforcement in response to US demands for stronger climate action. There is still a huge emission gap and rift between commitments and actions that needs to be filled.
How can the US reinstate a climate leadership that compels other countries to move faster and stay within the 1.5°C carbon budget? Most of the work starts at home. Part of the skepticism regarding the US goals is the wide swing and 180-degree turns our government keeps taking within the international climate arena. So, for the US to regain reliability and credibility its climate goals need to outlive a presidential term. The Biden administration has charted an ambitious course of action. Even though it is insufficient to be compatible with a 1.5°C pathway, achieving that aggressive target by 2030 won’t be simple requiring both political buy-in and a whole-of-society approach. This means Congress, regulatory authorities, state, and local action to ensure the world our climate pledge has durability. We need to pull every lever possible to achieve a climate transformation of the US energy economy that can’t be undone.
The Biden administration has positioned climate as a job creation, economic growth and infrastructure upgrade lens. This proposal is being set forward in the form of the Infrastructure Bill which would channel billions into renewable energy and green infrastructure. Additionally, it sets a clean energy standard as a federal mandate for 80% of the electricity generated in the US to come from zero-carbon sources by 2030. This will signal the world the major transformation they have been waiting for. In this government spending is the promise of jobs and an economic boost through innovation. In order to land this bill to on-the-ground implementation the benefits of climate action need to be widespread and felt across the country. Also, it must ensure that there is an enabling environment for job creation and delivery. This is where the intersection between congress and local action will determine our success in reversing the trends of climate change.
Communities and diverse sectors across the nation are powering the crucial work to solve the climate crisis. Places where wind and solar are widely popular are those communities where the benefits are being felt. So, the US can revamp its clean energy deployment, and adaptation strategies by leveraging existing efforts. For example, Native American land in the contiguous US has 17.6 TWh of solar energy potential, a staggering amount considering the total US utility-scale electricity generated in 2018 was only 4.2 TWh. Indigenous people are the stewards responsible for the protection of 80% of the biodiversity we have today.
Traditionally these communities have suffered from energy exploitation from fossil fuel companies making them coal-dependent while still failing to provide basic energy access to all households. Organizations like Native Renewables, Native Sun Community Power Development and the Red Cloud Renewable Center work to create access and promote clean energy and a sustainable economy for native nations through accessible solar photovoltaic systems, outreach and workforce training. Schools are also driving emission reductions in California through SEI Energize Schools amounting to 915,000 kWh of electricity savings, equivalent to nearly $130,000 in savings for more than 400 schools and preventing over 370,000 pounds of carbon emissions.
Additionally, cooperatives like Earth-Bound Building and Boricuá are working to restore depressed farming to sustainability through building ecological infrastructure and support brigades for small-scale farms and land-based projects. Food systems also are an important part of the equation as they account for 30% of global emissions. Therefore, making advances in our food production mechanism is imperative.
For a climate ready future, the US also needs to step up its adaptation and resilience building. Given that even 1.5C is far from a safe future, the disproportionate impacts of weather pattern changes and sea level rise will still be felt across frontline communities. Coral reefs help buffer against storm surge and wave energy, Socidad Ambiente Marino is one organization leading restoration and rehabilitation projects of coral reefs across Puerto Rico to increase coastal communities’ resilience. UPROSE has led bottom-up, climate adaptation and community resiliency planning projects while advancing policy that leads to environmental justice and climate resilience. We need our communities, which have the most at stake to be leading us into a future where everyone can thrive. So many other brightspots can be found in organizations, businesses, and states with legislation ready to align the national emissions with the target put forth. Local communities and decentralized action are the key to show the world the US is walking the climate talk.
Isatis M. Cintron-Rodriguez (Ph.D. Candidate) is a Puerto Rican climate researcher awarded the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to study the impacts of atmospheric pollution in the cryosphere and potential mitigation policies. She works in the intersection between climate civic diplomacy, strategizing and community organizing around climate action and human rights in the Latin America and Caribbean Region (LAC). She is the LAC Regional Coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby/International (CCI), focused on advancing climate-smart finance, climate empowerment, and public participation both at the national and the UNFCCC level.