Biden urges countries to meet this 'moment of peril' by stepping up emissions cuts

Saying the United States and other big economies "have to get this done," U.S. President Joe Biden opened a global climate summit Thursday aimed at getting world leaders to dig deeper on emissions cuts. The United States pledged to cut in half the amount of climate-wrecking coal and petroleum fumes it is pumping out.

U.S. to cut fossil fuel emissions up to 52% by 2030 — similar to pledges from allies

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Saying the United States and other big economies "have to get this done," U.S. President Joe Biden opened a global climate summit Thursday aimed at getting world leaders to dig deeper on emissions cuts.

The United States pledged to cut in half the amount of climate-wrecking emissions from coal and other fossil fuels it is pumping out.

"Meeting this moment is about more than preserving our planet," Biden said, speaking from a TV-style set for a virtual summit of 40 world leaders. "It's about providing a better future for all of us."

He calling this time "a moment of peril but a moment of opportunity."

"The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. The cost of inaction keeps mounting," he said.

Biden's administration is sketching out a vision of a prosperous, clean-energy United States where factories churn out cutting-edge batteries for export, line workers re-lay an efficient national electrical grid and crews cap abandoned oil and gas rigs and coal mines.

Ambitious efforts

Biden's commitment to cut U.S. fossil fuel emissions by up to 52 per cent by 2030 marks a return by the U.S. to global climate efforts after four years of withdrawal under former president Donald Trump. Japan, a heavy user of coal, announced its own new emissions reduction target of 46 per cent Thursday before the summit opened as the U.S. and its allies sought to build momentum.

The Biden administration's pledge would require by far the most ambitious U.S. climate effort ever undertaken, nearly doubling the reductions that the Obama administration had committed to in the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord.

The new urgency comes as scientists say that climate change caused by coal plants, car engines and other fossil fuel use is already worsening droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters and that humans are running out of time to stave off most catastrophic extremes of global warming.

But administration officials, in previewing the new target, disclosed aspirations and vignettes rather than specific plans, budget lines or legislative proposals for getting there.

Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris opened the Earth Day summit from the White House East Room before world leaders, including those from China, Russia, India, Gulf oil states, European and Asian allies and island and coastal nations already struggling against the effects of climate change. Pope Francis was also due to take part.

Biden planned to join a second session of the live streamed summit later in the morning on financing poorer countries' efforts to remake and protect their economies against global warming.

World leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, appear on screen during a virtual climate summit. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the summit was playing out as a climate telethon-style live stream, limiting opportunities for spontaneous interaction and negotiation. The event opened with a technological glitch — an echo in Harris's and Biden's remarks that was soon fixed.

With the pledge from the United States and other emissions-cutting announcements from Japan, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom, countries representing more than half the world's economy will have now committed to cutting fossil fuel fumes enough to keep the Earth's climate from warming, disastrously, more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Biden administration said.

As of 2019, the last year before the pandemic, the U.S. had reduced 13 per cent of its greenhouse gases compared with 2005 levels, which is about half way to the Obama administration goals of 26 to 28 per cent, said climate scientist Niklas Hohne of Climate Action Tracker. That's owing largely to market forces that have made solar and wind, and natural gas, much cheaper.

Biden, a Democrat, campaigned partly on a pledge to confront climate change. He has sketched out some elements of his $2 trillion approach for transforming U.S. transportation systems and electrical grids in his campaign climate plan and in his infrastructure proposals for Congress.

His administration insists the transformation will mean millions of well-paying jobs. Republicans say the effort will throw oil, gas and coal workers off the job. They call his infrastructure proposal too costly.

"The summit is not necessarily about everyone else bringing something new to the table — it's really about the U.S. bringing their target to the world," said Joanna Lewis, an expert in China energy and environment at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

It's an urgent but hardly perfect time for the U.S. to try to spur action.

China, Russia participate

The world's top two climate offenders, China and the United States, are feuding over non-climate issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who waited until Wednesday to confirm he would even take part, spoke first among the other global figures. He made no immediate reference to other U.S.-China disputes, saying, "To protect the environment is to protect productivity, and to boost the environment is to boost productivity. It's as simple as that."

India, the world's third-biggest emitter of fossil fuel fumes, is pressing the United States and other wealthier nations to come through on billions of dollars they've promised to help poorer nations build alternatives to coal plants and energy-sucking power grids. "'We in India are doing our part," Prime Minister Narendra Modi told participants, adding, "We have taken many bold steps."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nation by some assessments is the world's fourth-worst climate polluter, also accepted the U.S. invitation but is fuming over Biden calling him a "killer," as part of high tensions over Putin's aggressiveness abroad and U.S. sanctions.

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