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Climate Will Test Whether America Is Truly ‘Back’

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate at the White House on April 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

The final week of European summitry was a big diplomatic success for President Joe Biden. Gone was the tension and conflict of the Trump era and back was an America that respects its allies and seeks to work with them to solve global problems. America certainly looked like it was “back.” And yet, lurking beneath the surface are growing doubts in Europe about U.S. leadership. After all, how can Europe trust America when commitments from one administration can be so easily undone by the next?

Nowhere is this more clear than on climate—the issue that will drive global affairs over the coming decades. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accords and reversed many of the climate-related regulations put in place by the Obama administration. Now, the big test for U.S. global leadership is whether America can lead on the most critical issue facing the planet. Unfortunately, after a week of summitry, there were few tangible climate achievements.

G-7 climate pledges fall short

Kicking off the final week, the leaders from the world’s seven wealthiest nations—known as the Group of Seven, or G-7—met in the United Kingdom to discuss a number of pressing global challenges. But of major focus was climate change. 2021 is a critical year for climate diplomacy, and the G-7 meeting was expected to create a wave of momentum for bold climate action ahead of a number of other critical global meetings, including the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). However, the outcomes of the G-7 meeting were decidedly uninspiring, with some of them falling well short of expectations. This could set the stage for others to pair back their efforts and reduces the pressure on big global emitters such as China.

To be fair, in their final communique, the G-7 nations made a number of climate commitments. For instance, they called for accelerating efforts to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2050, including halving collective emissions by 2030, to ensure that the 1.5-degree Celsius global warming threshold remains within reach. The final communique also sought to end new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021 and to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of global land and ocean by 2030.

However, these commitments were undercut by the lack of specificity provided by the G-7 countries on when they would end their own use of coal plants. Instead, they indicated simply that they were committed to “rapidly scale-up technologies and policies that further accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity.” Such a lack of specificity is likely to make it much harder for the G-7 nations to pressure other countries, such as China, to end their growing use of coal.

Most disappointing was the lack of real progress on climate finance. The G-7 called for jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year in public and private international climate finance to support developing countries through 2025. But this commitment fell well short of expectations and is insufficient to address this growing crisis. Moreover, it is an old, unmet commitment—the same pledge the G-7 made 10 years ago and has failed to deliver on again and again. Since then, the costs of the climate crisis have only grown, requiring a bigger response.

The climate commitments of the U.S.-EU summit were very similar to those of the G-7 meeting, though with less specificity. Instead of simply restating G-7 commitments, the United States should have used this summit as an opportunity to lend its support to the European Union’s efforts to create a new carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM), which will be a necessary tool to compel companies and countries to decarbonize. Additionally, the United States could have worked with the EU to develop standard taxonomies for green finance. One new commitment made—the creation of a U.S.-EU High-Level Climate Action Group—could be quite significant; but it will require direct involvement from the president and his top advisers to have a real impact.

Conclusion: Next steps for U.S. climate leadership

In the end, President Biden’s efforts to restore U.S. leadership on the global stage will ultimately be determined by what actions the United States takes domestically on climate, rather than by what is expressed in an international communique. While U.S. officials are confident they can meet short-term climate targets through executive branch regulation, the world does not trust such an approach after witnessing during the Trump administration how easy it is for these to be undone. Therefore, for America to truly be back globally, it needs to first pass robust climate legislation that commits the United States to taking climate action.

The Europeans and the rest of the world are thus paying close attention to the climate provisions in the infrastructure bill. The outcome of this bill and whether it includes the climate provisions—to bolster electric vehicles, modernize the energy grid, and protect and restore nature-based infrastructure—will determine whether America can reclaim the mantle of global leadership. The passage of such a transformative package would suddenly make the United States a leader on climate. It would allow the United States to work with Europe in creating the decarbonized economy of the future. It would also enable the United States to press China for more action, not only diplomatically but also in the arena of global public opinion. For too long the United States has been a climate pariah, allowing China to position itself as a responsible and productive actor when it comes to the issue. Strong U.S. action would suddenly turn the tables and allow the United States to ramp up global pressure on China, which is now the world’s largest emitter, producing more carbon than all developed countries combined.

For this to happen, however, the climate provisions President Biden outlined in his initial infrastructure proposal need to make it through the legislative process. Whether they are included in the ultimate infrastructure and budget package that makes it through Congress will be critical not only for saving the planet but for preserving American global leadership.

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Carolyn Kenney is a senior policy analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center.