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US Climate Summit: Unity or Masking Divergences? - Selin Kumbaracı

US President Joe Biden’s two-day virtual Leaders Summit on Climate took place on 22-23 April. While the summit certainly drew much attention to the way in which the US is trying to put itself forward in a leadership role when it comes to climate action, it also highlighted the difficulties in getting other countries to commit to more ambitious climate targets.

A significant factor behind these difficulties lies in the uncertainty surrounding the feasibility of the climate pledges made by the US itself. Despite the Biden administration arguing that the recently proposed controversial infrastructure bill—which faces significant challenges in Congress—isn’t absolutely necessary for reducing emissions by 50-52% until 2030 (the US target), many are doubtful of this stance.

As such, given the slim chances of the bill passing, many experts are questioning whether or not the US will be able to reach its climate target. This uncertainty—on top of the US’ turbulent track record when it comes to following through on climate action, as evidenced by the setbacks during the Trump administration—does not make for a conducive atmosphere when it comes to convincing other nations to increase their targets.

While the US President Biden has had some successes, like the new commitments secured from Canada, Japan, and South Korea (among others), the countries that are major emitters—such as China, Russia, Brazil, and India—did not indicate they would be unveiling any new plans.

As one official from the Biden administration described China’s approach, “What you got from Xi Jinping is, ‘Let me tell you all about a 1992 treaty that still defines China as a developing country,’”—an argument used by Xi to avoid further concessions on climate. Indeed, the only ‘concession’ made by China was quite modest, with the country committing to a “phase down” of coal consumption between 2025-2030. While this is the first time Xi has promised to lower coal consumption, it should be noted that this would still allow such consumption to increase until 2026.

These more explicit divergences were not the only ones that marked the virtual summit. Perhaps less noticeable but much more pervasive a difference can be seen in the varying methods taken to combat climate change in the United States and Europe.

While the US has adopted a much more technology and innovation-focused path toward reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, the EU has taken on an approach that is much more systematic. As put forth by the French environment minister, “It’s great to develop hydrogen, as we are doing, and carbon capture. But I think we have an extra ingredient in France and Europe. We’re going further because we’re also looking at our ways of life.”

This reliance on green technological advancement as well as innovation and investment by the private sector is quite evident in the discourse of many in the administration—such as with US climate envoy, John Kerry, likening such green technology developments to going to the moon: “We are the country that went to the moon. We didn’t know how we were going to get there when President Kennedy announced the goal, but we did it”

While it is not that the EU doesn’t have investment into green technology, the US far surpasses the EU’s potential in this area, especially given the way in which spending on this matter would be determined nationally by the 27 Member States. However, the EU has the regulative power that the US sorely lacks: while the US continues to depend on market-driven methods, the European Green Deal—with it touching upon so many different areas of life, from automobile emissions to building renovations—has been dubbed an industrial policy.

While the difference in approach is something that could perhaps be overlooked, the sophisticated carbon pricing system the EU has—and that the US refuses to implement on a federal level—is much more of a tricky topic, especially in terms of how it will impact the future trade relations between the two powers.

Indeed, one particular point of heavy contention between the two sides is that of carbon pricing—especially as it relates to the EU’s carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM). While the EU utilizes its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), the US has no equivalent carbon pricing system. This creates a particularly delicate situation with regard to the EU’s CBAM—a tax of sorts that is to be applied to imports from countries without a carbon pricing mechanism equivalent to the EU’s, such as (potentially) the US.

Overall, despite many welcoming back US leadership on climate action, especially underlines the importance of its convening power, many divisions still remain. While some of the major fault lines are between the US and China, there are other existing uncertainties as to how serious the US is this time, particularly with its unreliable track record with regard to climate action. For the EU, though, the split lies in the methods applied and how potent these are in achieving the ambitious targets the US has expressed.

In the words of a former Obama administration official, Kelly Sims Gallagher, “A key difference is that many European countries have passed climate legislation, and this gives them much more authority to design and implement policies consistent with their international commitments,” as opposed to the US which “lacks this comprehensive legislation and instead has pursued a patchwork approach with limited authorities.”


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