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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Whole of Government For Climate Action

Air Date: Week of

President Joe Biden signs the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on, January 27, 2021. (Photo: Screenshot from White House video)

The Biden Administration is making big and early moves to tackle the climate crisis and show the rest of the world and major investors that the U.S. is aggressively committed to ‘whole of government’ climate action. Alden Meyer, Senior Associate at the climate think tank E3G, joins Host Steve Curwood to talk about “shifting the trillions” and the ambitious next steps that the global community will expect to see from the U.S. in what could be a make-or-break year for global climate action.


BASCOMB: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bobby Bascomb.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

Some Democratic senators are among climate activists who are urging President Joe Biden to declare a national state of emergency regarding the climate, including Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who spoke on MSNBC:

SCHUMER: I think it might be a good idea for President Biden to call a climate emergency. Then he can do many, many things under the emergency powers of the President that wouldn't have to go through - that he can do without legislation. Now Trump used this emergency for a stupid wall, which wasn't an emergency. But if there ever was an emergency, climate is one. So, I would suggest that they explore looking at climate as an emergency, which would give them more flexibility. After all, it's a crisis. It's a crisis.

CURWOOD: On January 27th, the day after Senator Schumer’s remarks, the White House held what it called ‘climate day.’ With his climate team beside him the President signed an executive order calling for “a whole of government” action plan on climate. But Mr. Biden didn’t go as far as declaring a National Emergency.

BIDEN: To summarize this executive order, it's about jobs, good paying union jobs. It's about workers, building our economy back better than before. It's a whole of government approach to put climate change at the center of our domestic, national security, and foreign policy. It's advancing conservation, revitalizing communities and cities and on the farmlands and securing environmental justice. Our plans are ambitious, but we are America. We're bold, we're unwavering in the pursuit, of jobs innovation, science and discovery. We can do this, we must do this, and we will do this.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry called the upcoming climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland “the world’s last, most important opportunity” for meaningful climate action. (Photo: Robert Brown, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

CURWOOD: There are a number of elements in the Biden climate action plan, and today we start looking at the details. So, first we consider how the Biden Administration is looking to partner with the global community, now that America is back in the Paris Climate Agreement. US Special Climate Envoy John Kerry recently told a business gathering of G20 nations that in 2021 the US must go all in and be ready when 195 countries gather for the next big UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland this November.

KERRY: We really have the world’s last, most important opportunity to come together, to raise ambition and to take the next step from Paris. Failure is simply not an option.

CURWOOD: Joining us now to talk about the global opportunities and challenges for the Biden Administration is Alden Meyer, Senior Associate at the climate think tank E3G. Welcome back to Living on Earth Alden!

MEYER: Thanks, Steve, it's great to be back with you again.

CURWOOD: So let's take a look at the big picture for a moment. How can the global business community work together with nations and the international climate process to speed up this wholesale transformation of the global economy?

MEYER: Well, the good news is the business community has been deeply engaged across the world on this. And in recent years, many companies are making truly transformational commitments to get to net zero emissions; in the case of Microsoft, net-negative emissions in their supply chains and their operations; going to 100% renewable energy sourcing, etc. What they most want from governments is clarity and a strong set of rules to make everyone play by the same ground rules. And so they in many cases are supportive of this transformational agenda. Of course, business is not uniform. There are still those in the fossil fuel industry and some other sectors that are not totally with the program, and will resist the kind of policies that Secretary Kerry has been calling for. But by and large, business is weighing in, they're pressing leaders in the G7, in the G20 group of nations to do more, to make transformational commitments. But it's a heavy lift.

G20 member countries shown in purple. Members of the European Union not individually represented are shown in light blue and 2019 guest nations are in pink. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

CURWOOD: Now Alden, the G20 has a summit immediately before the next big UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland this November. What needs to get teed up for the G20 in order to build up strong momentum going into Glasgow? And by the way, I understand there's a B20 that works with the G20, and you might want to explain what the B20 is, and how that connects with the G20 and how that's going to get into these negotiations ultimately in Scotland.

MEYER: Sure, well, the G20 represents twenty of the largest industrial and developing nations, countries that collectively account for about 85% of global emissions. So it's where the emissions are if you're going to get something done on this. Clearly one of the agendas here has to be getting more of the G20 countries to commit to the net zero emissions targets by mid century, that now all of the G7 industrialized countries have committed to with the change of administrations here in the U.S., and even countries like China and South Korea have now committed to, in principle. Living into that, of course, is a challenge because to get there, you have to do dramatic action in the coming decade in the run up to 2030. Now, as you said, there are interest groups like the B20, which is the business associations from the twenty G20 countries. There's also the L20, which is labor interests. There's the C20, which is civil society. And all of these groups meet as constituencies and try to influence the policymakers and the agenda for the G20. Now, the Italians have said they want to convene this summit the two days before the opening of COP26, the climate summit in Glasgow, and then have the leaders come from Rome to Glasgow, to be there for a high-level segment of the COP under the leadership of the United Kingdom. That's the plan; of course, we'll see if COVID allows that kind of large-scale public gathering by November. We all hope it does, but it's by no means a certainty.

CURWOOD: Alden, how has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the dynamic of global climate action heading into the Glasgow talks?

MEYER: Well, it's obviously made a huge impact politically; it is the issue that's front and center on every country's mind, every politician's mind. They have to address the COVID health crisis and the economic damage that the COVID pandemic has created. But they have to do that in a way, as President Biden said during the campaign, that we "build back better" from this crisis, because we could get to Glasgow 10 months from now, and have locked in a lot of future emissions, if we make those investments in the wrong way.

Emma Marcegaglia, B20 Chair (left) with John Kerry, United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (center) and the Italian Minister of Economy and Finance, Roberto Gualtieri. (Photo: Courtesy of B20)

CURWOOD: When John Kerry, the US international climate czar, was speaking at the B20, the business group, he said that the Glasgow talks are really the last best chance for the planet to come together and get ambition raised from countries' initial Paris pledges. What does the Biden administration need to do in order to have a solid plan heading into those talks?

MEYER: Well, the US is now on the hook, since we've re-entered the Paris agreement, to put forward what's called an NDC, a nationally determined contribution for the year 2030. Technically, that was due by the end of 2020. But the rest of the world obviously will give the U.S. a pass because of the past Trump administration, which they're happy to see in the rearview mirror when it comes to climate. There's indications the Biden-Harris administration wants to put that plan forward before Earth Day, April 22, which is when they're talking about President Biden hosting a climate ambition summit of leaders to address the climate crisis. So that's one piece, and that plan has to have some political reality and robustness to it, it has to be something the world thinks the U.S. can actually carry out. So the administration needs to consult with Congress, with governors, with mayors, with business leaders and others, to make sure there's support for the kind of proposal they put forward. The other side of this is climate finance. We are $2 billion in arrears on the $3 billion pledge that President Obama made to the Green Climate Fund, for example. So making up that remaining 2 billion is an immediate priority for the administration. But the world is also looking, what more we can do to build on that, both with our bilateral and multilateral commitments to climate finance. So I would say domestic action, and climate finance are the two big litmus tests the world will be looking for from the U.S. in the run up to Glasgow.

CURWOOD: Okay, Alden, so polish up your crystal ball and tell me what you see in the nationally determined contribution or the NDC, from the U.S. that will get offered for the Paris Climate Agreement, what will be in it?

MEYER: Well, there's different pieces here, there's what's the level of ambition; of course, the existing commitment for the U.S. under Paris is for a 26 to 28% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2025. Because of what ex-President Trump did to take the U.S. out of the game and try to dismantle federal climate policy, it will be very challenging for the U.S. to meet that target. The world is looking for the U.S. to put a target on the table for 2030 that's consistent with a trajectory to net zero emissions by mid century. So that has to be something in the 45 to 50% range, for example. And to do that the administration is going to have to use a mix of doing everything it can with existing executive authority, through the agencies -- EPA, Department of Energy, Department of Interior, Transportation, others -- to put pedal to the metal there and do actions to decarbonize various sectors of the economy. They're also going to have to try to get Congress to go along with budget and infrastructure and stimulus proposals that make investments in these sectors. And finally, they're going to have to work with the states, the cities, the business leaders, investors and others that have been part of the We Are Still In coalition during the Trump years to deepen and broaden sub-national action on climate change, which has been the driving force for keeping us in the game over the last four years in terms of domestic emissions. So it's, a it's a pretty complicated set of pieces they have to put together. And they're going to have to navigate the politics as they do that.

President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan aims to boost clean energy jobs and other “jobs of the future” to jumpstart an economic recovery. (Photo: Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Hey, Alden, how valid do you think are the concerns about big business capturing the climate negotiation process, and thereby watering down ambition to decarbonize?

MEYER: Well, we've, we've clearly seen the impact of business from the beginning of this process back in the early 1990s, trying to shape it to their liking. Of course, in those days, it was the fossil fuel companies working directly with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, other countries to try to water down ambition in the original framework convention in Rio. We've seen that shift over time for more progressive business involvement, saying, Yes, we want to have climate ambition, but we want to do it in a way that's favorable to us. There can be examples there of green scamming, of looking like you're doing something when you're really not changing your basic modus operandi. There have been concerns about some of the mechanisms created in the international climate regime, like the clean development mechanism where there were projects done, which people said didn't really benefit the atmosphere, but allowed the countries or the companies to get credits for actions to satisfy their obligations under the climate regime. So you have to do this in a, in a smart way. You don't want to create loopholes, you don't want to create fraud or green scamming. But you need to have business involved and at the table if you're going to do this, because where the governments, for example, are investing tens of billions of dollars in climate finance and infrastructure investments, the private sector is investing trillions of dollars. If you don't shift those trillions of dollars in the right direction, you're not going to get the job done.

CURWOOD: Alden Meyer is a senior associate at the climate think tank E3G. Alden, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

MEYER: Thanks, Steve. I enjoyed being with you again.



President Biden’s executive actions to tackle the climate crisis

Biden speaks and signs executive order on combating the climate crisis

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s remarks at the B20, as prepared

Learn more about the B20

About Alden Meyer


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