Biden Casts America as Climate Leader and Promises a ‘Low-Carbon Future’

Source: By Lisa Friedman and Jim Tankersley, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2022

At climate talks in Egypt, President Biden apologized for his predecessor’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

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President Biden apologized for his predecessor’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement and stressed a renewed U.S. commitment to tackling the climate crisis.Doug Mills/The New York Times

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — President Biden appeared before an overflowing United Nations convention on Friday to reclaim America’s role as a leader on climate change and to stress a renewed U.S. commitment to stop the planet from catastrophic warming.

Mr. Biden came to Egypt as the president who muscled through a landmark climate law, one that provides a record $370 billion to accelerate America’s transition away from the fossil fuels that have underpinned its economy for 150 years.

At the summit, known as COP27, he spoke of how he immediately returned the United States to the 2015 Paris climate agreement upon taking office after his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, had withdrawn the country. “I apologize that we ever pulled out of the agreement,” he told the gathering, which comprised diplomats, ministers and representatives of nearly 200 nations.

Mr. Biden’s speech came in the midpoint of the two-week summit that has focused not so much on cutting the pollution that is driving climate change, but on the question of what, if anything, industrialized countries owe to poor nations that are suffering climate disasters for which they are ill-prepared and did little to cause.

For the first time, the idea of climate reparations, known in diplomatic circles as “loss and damage,” is on the formal agenda at the U.N. climate talks. For years, the United States and other wealthy nations have blocked calls for loss and damage funding, concerned that it would open them up to unlimited liability. And as a legal and a practical matter, it has been extraordinarily difficult to define “loss and damage” and determine what it might cost and who should pay how much.

But this week, leaders of several European countries said they supported the creation of a loss and damage fund and made cash pledges, putting pressure on the Americans.

Mr. Biden visited Egypt as part of a foreign relations trip that also includes stops in Cambodia and Indonesia, where he is expected to meet with President Xi Jinping of China during a gathering of the Group of 20.

Climate activists and diplomats are hoping that the men, who represent the world’s two largest economies as well as the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, might restart discussions about working together on climate action. China suspended those talks in August out of anger over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

During his remarks at COP27, Mr. Biden made no mention of climate reparations. That disappointed some activists and diplomats, particularly those from developing nations, who view it as a matter of justice.

“It’s fundamentally about who is most responsible,” said Fatima Denton, a Gambian scholar, longtime U.N. official and member of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. “There’s a solidarity issue here that’s only going to become bigger as the crisis grows. Support for that idea is needed now.”

Mr. Biden mentioned recent climate disasters that had caused misery and destruction in every part of the globe, explaining that no one was safe from the threat posed by a warming Earth, and that collective action was the only way to face the crisis. He exhorted other nations to follow America’s lead and increase their efforts to make swift and deep cuts to the pollution that is driving climate change.

“The United States is acting. Everyone has to act,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s a duty and responsibility of global leadership. Countries that are in a position to help should be supporting developing countries so they can make decisive climate decisions.”

“We’re racing forward to do our part to avert the climate hell that the U.N. secretary general so passionately warned about earlier this week,” he said.

He reiterated a 2021 pledge to provide $11.4 billion annually by 2024 to help developing countries transition to wind, solar and other renewable energy. That money, which is different from a loss and damage fund, was promised by wealthy nations under the 2015 Paris agreement. Last year, Mr. Biden secured just $1 billion toward that goal from Congress.

Mr. Biden noted that the new climate law in the United States would propel progress in batteries, hydrogen and other technology, and would encourage “a cycle of innovation” that would reduce costs, improve performance and benefit the world. “We’re going to help make the transition to a low-carbon future more affordable for everyone,” he said.

For the first time, Mr. Biden announced, the U.S. government will require domestic oil and gas producers to detect and fix leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps about 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide does in the short run. The fossil fuel industry is the biggest industrial source of methane emissions in the United States; the colorless, odorless gas leaks from pipelines and is often intentionally vented by gas producers. Stopping methane from escaping into the atmosphere is critical to slowing global warming, scientists say.

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a regulation on Friday that it said would eliminate 36 million tons of methane emissions from oil and gas operations by 2035 — more than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from all coal-fired power plants in a single year.

Last year, the United States and Europe led a coalition of more than 100 countries that agreed to cut 30 percent of methane emissions by 2030. Despite that pledge, methane emissions this year are rising faster than ever before, according to a report by the World Meteorological Organization. Mr. Biden urged other nations to make good on their promises.

Some negotiators praised Mr. Biden’s determination to aggressively confront climate change, particularly after Mr. Trump essentially suspended federal efforts for four years. Mr. Biden received sustained applause for saying that if governments can finance coal, they can finance renewable energy. And the crowd gave him a standing ovation at the end of his remarks.

Ayman Elgohary, an Egyptian delegate, said he found Mr. Biden’s explanation of how the new American climate law will help drive down the cost of clean energy “exciting.”

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Youth climate activists from around the world marched through the COP27 venue in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, and called for more action from countries like the United States.Reuters

“Joe Biden, in my book, is a genuine climate hero,” former Vice President Al Gore said during an interview at the climate talks on Thursday.

In Mr. Biden’s speech, he spoke of the long struggle to pass a climate law, noting that he introduced legislation more than 30 years ago as a senator to address what was then a looming crisis. “Finally,” he said, “today I can stand here as president of the United States of America and say, with confidence, the United States will meet its emissions targets by 2030.”

But the summit also showcased something that Mr. Biden and his administration are increasingly discovering — that even as world leaders welcome American re-engagement on the issue, their expectations for U.S. action have swelled.

Amara Nwuneli, a 15-year old activist from Lagos, Nigeria, said she thought Mr. Biden’s speech was disappointing. “He talked about the things America accomplished, but he made it feel like they’ve done enough,” she said. “And there’s so much more to be done.”

Mr. Biden was the only leader of a major polluting country to appear at the climate talks in Egypt. Mr. Xi, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India did not attend. The absence of the other leaders made Mr. Biden even more of a target for developing nations that were aggrieved.

Some of the assembled negotiators and environmental activists criticized Mr. Biden ahead of his speech. Protesters briefly interrupted it.

“Joe Biden comes to COP27 and makes new promises, but his old promises have not even been fulfilled,” said Mohamed Adow, the founder of Power Shift Africa, an environmental group, after Mr. Biden gave his remarks. “He is like a salesman selling goods with endless small print.”

Mr. Biden talking with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. They are both sitting in ornate gold chairs with a matching table with drinks and tissues between them. The American flag is next to Mr. Biden, while the Egyptian flag is next to Mr. el-Sisi.
Mr. Biden meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt before delivering a 23-minute address at the conference.Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Biden’s stop at the summit was over almost as soon as it began. He landed in Egypt midafternoon after flying overnight from Washington. He then spent about three hours on the ground, meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and raising topics including “the importance of human rights and respect for fundamental freedoms,” White House officials said.

After delivering his 23-minute speech, he boarded Air Force One for a second overnight flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, before traveling on to Bali, Indonesia, for the Group of 20 gathering.

Aboard Air Force One to Cambodia, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said Mr. Biden had pressed for the release of Egyptian political prisoners, including Alaa Abd El Fattah, the British-Egyptian prisoner whose hunger and water strike this week has overshadowed the summit. “We’re doing everything we can” to secure their release, Mr. Sullivan said.

While in Egypt, Mr. Biden announced modest new steps to build on the tax incentives and government spending programs in the climate law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which is designed to speed the adoption of electric vehicles as well as a transition to wind, solar and other clean energy sources.

One of the law’s provisions threatens fines of up to $1,500 per ton of methane released, to be imposed against the worst polluters. But there also is $1.55 billion in the package aimed at helping companies avoid those fines by pouring money into upgrading equipment to monitor and contain leaks.

The rule proposed by the E.P.A. includes a new provision the administration called the “super-emitter response program,” which would require oil and gas operators to respond to credible third-party reports that their sites were experiencing major methane leaks.

Control of Congress, which is still uncertain after this week’s midterm elections, could complicate any hope Mr. Biden has of passing additional climate legislation, including funding to fulfill America’s climate commitments to developing nations. If Republicans win control of one or both chambers of Congress, they are unlikely to support such spending.

Democratic lawmakers who traveled to Egypt for the summit acknowledged that any new climate efforts, including moves to cut more emissions or secure more funding for developing countries, would be challenging. “It’s going to be very hard to get it done,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said.

Particularly when it comes to funding to help poor countries transition to clean energy or cope with the consequences of climate change, “we can’t get 60 votes for those issues,” Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said.

That opposition was underscored on Friday by Representative Greg Murphy, Republican of North Carolina, one of six House Republicans who traveled to Egypt for the summit. He said that Democrats were trying to shift away from fossil fuels too quickly, imperiling American growth and leaving the United States at a disadvantage to China.

“Fossil fuels built the world,” Mr. Murphy, a former surgeon, said. “And we’ll bankrupt the world and starve the world if we make a transition that is too fast.”

Lisa Friedman reported from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, and Jim Tankersley from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Max Bearak, David Gelles and Vivian Yee contributed reporting from Sharm el Sheikh.