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‘We have to get this done’: Biden opens climate summit with call for steep emissions cuts

President Biden at a lectern with microphones
President Biden will host a virtual summit on climate change for Thursday and Friday.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

President Biden announced Thursday that he’s doubling the United States’ original commitment to slashing greenhouse gas emissions, making the country’s goal one of the most ambitious in the world as he hosts leaders from around the globe during a virtual summit on climate change.

“That’s where we’re headed as a nation,” he said in his opening remarks from the White House. “And that’s what we can do, if we take action to build an economy that’s not only more prosperous, but healthier, fairer and cleaner for the entire planet.”

President Obama had pledged to cut emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 when the Paris climate accord was signed more than five years ago. Biden will increase that target to 50% to 52% by 2030, a dramatic escalation that will require sweeping changes in how Americans power their vehicles, homes and factories if the U.S. is serious about fulfilling its promise.

World leaders promised to reduce carbon dioxide emissions when they joined the Paris climate deal, but not all have kept their word.

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“We must get on a path now in order to do that,” Biden said. “If we do, we’ll breathe easier, literally and figuratively.”

He added, “We really have no choice. We have to get this done.”

Leaders of 40 countries — including China, Russia and India — accepted invitations to the two-day summit, which is being held virtually because of the pandemic. Its opening was timed to coincide with Earth Day.

Exactly how Biden plans to put the U.S. on a trajectory to meet his goal remains unclear. Administration officials did not detail specific policies that they would implement or propose, and many ideas will probably face stiff resistance from Republicans and various industries that would be forced to overhaul their operations.

Parts of Biden’s climate agenda were already included in his infrastructure and jobs proposal. He wants all electricity in the U.S. to come from carbon-free sources by 2035. Roughly half of the country’s power currently comes from sources that don’t generate greenhouse gases.

He also proposed funding for 500,000 vehicle charging stations by 2030. Currently less than 1% of vehicles on the road are powered by electricity.

Biden will probably rely on cities and states to deliver some of the emissions reductions with their own policies. California has already set tougher limits on vehicle emissions, and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order requiring all new cars sold to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

“Achieving that target is something we can do in multiple ways,” from increasing the number of electric cars on the road to generating more electricity from the sun and wind, said an administration official who spoke to reporters on the eve of the summit on condition of anonymity.

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Although Biden’s plans remain vague and fraught with political hurdles, the president hopes his declaration will demonstrate the country’s unequivocal return to the fight against climate change. His immediate predecessor, President Trump, had withdrawn from the Paris agreement and unraveled environmental regulations.

Biden also wants to use his new goal — among the most ambitious in the world, according to the Rhodium Group, an independent research organization — to urge his counterparts to increase their own commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In his remarks, Biden noted that the United States produces 15% of global emissions — second only to China, but still a fraction of the worldwide total.

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“No nation can solve this crisis on our own,” Biden said, adding, “We have to step up.”

Rejoining the Paris agreement was the easy part. Now the Biden administration must choose a new goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that’s both ambitious and practical.

Biden administration officials said they hope some of the other countries participating will announce more ambitious targets, to provide momentum ahead of a planned United Nations conference in Scotland at the end of the year.

“Unless we get it right, and get it right pretty quickly,” the world will suffer even more dramatic effects of global warming, another administration official said at Wednesday’s briefing.


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