The era of climate statecraft is here

It’s a big climate week, maybe one of the most important of 2021. The U.S. is hosting its first-ever climate summit, bringing together over officials from 40 countries, the Pope and a host of CEOs. Leaders from China, Russia and even Brazil are also scheduled to attend. The White House aims for virtual gathering to discuss and commit to climate targets leading up to COP 26 this fall in Glasgow. The U.S. hosting this meeting serves as its opportunity to launch the great reset for the United States after four years of climate change denial and rollback of energy and environmental regulatory reforms initiated under the Obama administration and undone under former Trump administration.

The summit will also illustrate how climate statecraft is being used, especially by the world’s largest emitters, China, the United States and European Union. There’s been a groundswell of pledges and rhetoric by countries to go net-zero and net-neutral over the next 40 years, with ambitious decarbonization targets planned for 2030, 2050 and 2060. The enormity of achieving this level of transformation cannot be overstated. 

A year ago, the United States was a sideline player, having withdrawn from the Paris Agreement in 2017, but with President Biden now in the White House and his all-of-government approach to addressing climate change, the U.S. aims to regain global climate leadership. It is going in with the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent from 2005 levels, to achieve net-zero electrification by 2035, and to be net-zero by 2050. The EU is going in big: Just this week, it committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent compared to 1990 levels and to do this by 2050.  The UK not to be outdone by the EU announced emissions cuts of 78 percent by 2035 c­­ompared with 1990. 

Never before has there been so many countries galvanizing around decarbonization and commitments to cleaner and greener energy. But there are also many challenges, from whether or not there will be global cooperative climate statecraft on promises or whether competitive climate statecraft will prevail.

The world is watching — and given the exigency of climate change and its impacts — this week’s summit needs to illustrate action over rhetoric-perception matters. The danger is that the summit will highlight what countries aim to do and what they are planning to do as part of their green recovery plans, but the challenge is in bringing the numbers in line with words, and that’s where uncertainty and risk remain high.  

The summit is happening amid good news and bad news. Good news first, the U.S. energy-related carbon emissions are in decline from their peak in 2007, coming in at a high of 6 billion tons, and due to the coronavirus and lockdowns, emissions dropped to a low of 4.57 billion tons in 2020, a decrease of 11 percent for 2020.

And for the bad news, 2021 and 2022 look like U.S. energy emissions will be higher, and there will be a rise in global energy and overall emissions. With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, there are important questions about the global recovery and how it impacts energy demand and overall carbon emissions.

The International Energy Agency’s latest forecast on carbon emissions is not an optimistic one. In 2020 the world witnessed a COVID lockdown induced reduction in emissions, but 2021 is already showing a rebound in emissions and with a projected increase of 1.5 billion tonnes added in 2021 alone, which, if the forecast is correct, would mean the second-largest increase in history. 

Couple that with the growing possibility of increases in demand for oil, natural gas and coal. A conundrum coming out of COVID-19 is that while much of the world faces severe economic risks, impacts and an overall uneven economic recovery, new OECD data also shows that there’s a lot of pent up consumer demand after a year of consumers saving more than $5.4 trillion — how that money gets spent is a question. It may go towards travel, longer trips and purchases that also come with a carbon footprint. The stimulus programs are meant to stimulate economies and infuse capital into “building back better” as Biden says.  We could see the carbon reduction schemes diluted by emphasizing spending more, with downsides for a more progressive carbon reduction outlook.  

China, celebrating the 100th anniversary founding of the CPU, has pledged to be net-neutral by 2060China is the world’s largest solar panel and wind turbine manufacturer and is building out a 21st-century grid and new transmission lines to bring more renewable energy into their system and export beyond their borders. But China’s big problem remains its coal consumption.

Demand is up, and rather than shutting down coal plants, the country is building out new ones. The first half of 2021 shows China’s economy growing by 18 percent, with a resulting increase in coal consumption. The government must shut down over 500 coal-fired power plants, and do so in the next 10 years, to have any chance of reaching its climate targets.  Will China and the US achieve climate cooperation or maintain a hostile bilateral relationship which will mean competition in the race to net zero.

While U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry promotes cooperation with China in the lead-up to Thursday’s Summit, there remains skepticism and caution within the Biden administration. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken employed the language of competition and confrontation with China when he spoke about the United States’ opportunity to address climate change. Blinken, “No nation’s climate efforts would excuse bad behavior,” referring to China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjang, democracy suppression in Hong Kong and overtures in the South China Sea. He sees China seizing its chance to lead the world in clean energy technologies as the world moves from a fossil-based to a more decarbonized energy system. The U.S. is hoping to propel domestic change through a massive 2.5 trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, which, if realized, would drive the U.S. closer toward meeting its climate pledges and move jobs into the burgeoning renewable energy sustainability and climate justice space.

The era of climate statecraft is here, and we will hear a lot more about it this week at the climate summit. Still, success will be realized if countries can reign in emissions while at the same time supporting economic growth, it requires a global reset and decoupling of development from fossil fuels, and with the world already 1 degree Celsius warmer, the exigency of action is clear; we cannot afford to lose more time. 

Carolyn Kissane, Ph.D., serves as the academic director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Global Security, Conflict and Cyber at the Center for Global Affairs and is a clinical professor. She is also the director of the SPS Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab. 

Tags Antony Blinken carbon emissions Carbon footprint Carolyn Kissane Climate change Climate Summit Greenhouse gas Joe Biden John Kerry White House

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