Setting New Goals At An Earth Week Climate Summit

12:51 minutes

a man speaks at a podium behind to the side of him is a large screen with zoom callers and a board with a logo that reads leaders summit on climate
President Biden and world leaders at The Leaders Summit on Climate. Credit: The White House

This week, world leaders met online to discuss global climate policy and targets for carbon emissions reductions. The climate summit, organized by the Biden White House, comes just after the United States formally rejoined the Paris climate accords that were abandoned by the Trump administration.

In connection with the summit, the Biden administration announced a national goal of a 50% reduction (based on 2005 levels) in carbon emissions by 2030—a significant boost to the targets proposed in the original Paris accords.  And European Union nations announced the outlines of a climate deal  that would put the EU on target for “climate neutrality” by 2050. The EU also committed to a 55% reduction in emissions over 1990 levels by 2030. 

Other climate policy actions are in the works at home as well—including major support for renewable energy projects in the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure plan. Emily Atkin, who writes the climate-focused newsletter HEATED, joins Ira to discuss the latest goings-on in climate policy, and whether the federal government is finally getting serious about the threat of climate change. 

Segment Guests

Emily Atkin

Emily Atkin is author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter about the climate crisis. She’s based in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Wind power is just one element of a plan to shift to green energy. This week, the White House is hosting a climate summit with leaders from around the world. And as part of that summit, President Biden announced a national goal of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and European Union nations outlined a commitment to become climate neutral by 2050. Here to talk about the summit and other climate policy issues is climate journalist Emily Atkin. She writes the newsletter HEATED. Welcome back to Science Friday.

EMILY ATKIN: Thank you for having me, Ira. I’m always really happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Can you detect anything different about this climate summit than just a meeting of world leaders like before?

EMILY ATKIN: It’s on Zoom, but I think to your actual question, I think what’s significant about this is really that it’s a shift. It probably could not be a starker shift from what the last four years have been like, in terms of global cooperation at climate summits. The US’s presence at climate summits internationally for the last four years has been antagonistic, to put it mildly. The Trump administration was sending representatives to talk about how coal is a climate solution. So that’s certainly different.

IRA FLATOW: That is a lot different. How realistic is this goal of 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030? Because there’s not a lot of detail how to get there.

EMILY ATKIN: It’s very realistic in terms of can it be done, and it’s realistic in terms of do we want to effectively address this crisis to save millions of lives? So it’s realistic in that sense. What it’s going to take, though, is just serious, sustained, dramatic, almost radical action of the type that we, as a country, have really been unable to muster.

IRA FLATOW: What examples of radical action come to mind when you say that?

EMILY ATKIN: I mean, we have to green the power sector, so that means that we have to make the electricity grid run on mostly, if not eventually entirely renewable energy, and that’s the most important thing to do. Transportation is our number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, followed by the power sector, but transportation is from a lot of gas-powered cars, number one, and you can’t switch to electric cars and have that really make a difference until the electricity sector is drained.

So that’s going to take not just regulations from the executive side from Biden, but also probably domestic climate programs and policies that include legislation, that include input from Congress. So you’re going to want to see investments in renewable power and electric vehicles along with regulations.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that big infrastructure package moving through Congress now, doesn’t that target major sources and major resources like wind and solar development?

EMILY ATKIN: Yeah. One of the huge things in the infrastructure plan is a renewable electricity standard. So it gets a little wonky sometimes explaining it, but basically, something that says companies that deliver you power to your home, there’s a standard that they have to use a certain amount of their power generation source from renewable sources.

The Biden administration hasn’t said exactly what will count as renewable. Sometimes it’s just wind and solar, sometimes it includes hydropower, nuclear, but the idea is that every single year that required percentage would increase over time. And utilities, they’re actually into that because right now, they have to deal with this patchwork of state regulations. They’re different in every single state.

So that’s a big incentive for renewable energy development. There are other provisions to invest in wind and solar, and then there’s also a provision to end subsidies for fossil fuels, which is one reason why renewables haven’t been able to be as competitive as fossil fuels in the past.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think the Biden administration is shooting a little too conservatively? I mean, because Biden is calling at the same time for that 50% reduction, the European Union is saying, whoa, not just a reduction. We’re aiming to become totally climate neutral by 2050.

EMILY ATKIN: It’s a good point. And I think another thing you have to think of is when the Biden administration says halving emissions, half of what? The baseline that they’re talking about is cutting half of emissions from 2005. The European Union is basing their reductions on 1990. So the European Union has pledged this 55% reduction by 2030 from 1990 emissions levels. The UK has set out this 78% reduction by 2035.

And so our pledge, even though it sounds like it’s the same, 50% by 2030, when you compare it to their pledges, it really only amounts to about a 40% cut for the US if you recalibrate it to that same 1990 baseline. I know that that’s all super wonky, but it reinforces your point that our pledge, though aggressive, though it will require radical action, is not as aggressive as other leading emitters.

And I think that just goes to show you the massive nature of the problem we’re dealing with. I think that for a lot of people, they’re like, it sounds like nothing we ever do will be enough to really meaningfully slow climate change. And that’s because it really is a huge problem that takes more effort than one might think would be reasonable, but it’s for a good cause.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and it’s interesting to see how recently over 300 big business leaders released a statement calling for the US to strengthen their climate goals even more. I mean, business understands where the country is heading.

EMILY ATKIN: Oh, business understands where the country’s consumers are heading, in terms of what they’ll buy. I wonder how many of those businesses have stopped donating money to politicians who deny climate change and who are working against climate regulation at any cost. A lot of companies call on officials to do a lot of things, and then have incredibly unsustainable business practices and use their power in the political system. They use their money to fund the very politicians that are obstructing climate action.

I’m always very skeptical when I see those things because I know on the public facing side, big businesses, they want to be seen as the green leaders because that makes customers, you and me, more likely to buy from them. But in the short term, being environmentally progressive, that can have a lot of upfront costs that businesses don’t like. So I don’t know. On my beat, specifically, I see a lot of green-washing and I see a lot of talking out of both sides of their mouths on climate when it comes to businesses, so color me skeptical.

IRA FLATOW: OK. That’s a good point. You make a very good point. I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

Speaking of businesses, when he took office, President Biden made news, I remember this, by shutting down the approval for the Keystone Pipeline project. But you have other pipelines that are still in the works. Is Biden signaling anything here? I mean, is this a skeptical part of you also?

EMILY ATKIN: It’s hard not to be skeptical having just come back from Northern Minnesota for a couple of weeks reporting on the Line 3 pipeline, which is one of the pipelines in progress that a lot of Indigenous people in northern Minnesota were really hoping that Biden would take action on, but he has not and hasn’t made any public statement about it. And I guess it’s hard not to be skeptical when you haven’t seen even any statement on these other pipelines.

You know, Keystone XL was absolutely a big deal, and the question of climate change, it’s not just about one pipeline. It’s about the system of fossil fuel infrastructure in the United States. And we have a bunch of new pipelines being built, one includes Line 3, which is a tar sands expansion pipeline estimated by some environmental groups that will add about 50 coal plants worth of carbon pollution to the atmosphere for the next 30 to 50 years if it’s completed. That pipeline will go underneath a couple crossings of the Mississippi River.

Biden has the opportunity to either stop it, pause it, put a review on it, say something about it, right? Why cancel Keystone, a tar sands pipeline, and not Line 3, a tar sands pipeline? These are just questions that we do not have answers to, and it’s hard to not be skeptical when you’re not getting transparency.

And so that’s what I would hope just to see more of. I know there’s a lot going on with the Biden White House. They have a lot to deal with. But I would argue that the climate crisis is among the most important.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. He said, as he was campaigning and even after he took office, that that would be one of the top issues that he tackled. So now we just have to wait and see whether he lives up to that.

EMILY ATKIN: Yeah. And I have a habit, of course, as a reporter of sounding overly cynical. I don’t want to make it sound like the Biden administration isn’t doing anything. I’ve talked to a lot of environmental justice leaders over the last couple of days, talking to them about the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial and how that relates to climate justice, and the things that they care about.

And overall, what I see from them is an appreciation for what has been done by the Biden administration so far, but still a sustained need for more. Because the injustices facing, especially Black and brown people from the climate crisis, from aggressive policing, from systemic racism in the United States, we’ve allowed them all to bundle and bundle for so many years that what they’re saying is the only thing that’s going to help is action that meets that level of threat that they’ve been under for so long.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, the US has now re-entered the Paris Agreement after the Trump administration backed out. What, if anything, did our time out of the agreement do? Do we still have credibility problems about that internationally?

EMILY ATKIN: Yes. We absolutely do and I think that’s going to be one of the biggest challenges of this summit and of all international summits moving forward, is going to be whether we can follow through on pledges and stick with them, or whether or not we’re just going to be a country that yo-yos around and brings the rest of the world with us on our string.

Climate change is the long-term problem. It’s the test on whether we can be committed to something. And the Biden administration in this particular summit, it’s the first summit. We haven’t seen any indication yet that we know how to make this a long-term thing rather than basically Paris Agreement number two. But like you said, we’ll see. That’s the beauty of all of climate change. It’s like, I don’t know. We’ll see.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll see. And we’ll have you along with us to look at it, Emily.

EMILY ATKIN: Thanks. I’d be honored.

IRA FLATOW: Emily Atkin writes the newsletter HEATED. Thanks for taking time to join us today.

EMILY ATKIN: Thank you for having me.

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