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19 April 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:47am

Can Joe Biden’s climate summit keep global warming below 1.5°C?

The US president is expected to set out a plan to cut emissions significantly by 2030, in a sharp break with the Trump era.

By Ido Vock

US President Joe Biden will host an international climate summit on Thursday 22 April, which is also Earth Day, the annual event used to demonstrate global support for environmental action. More than 40 world leaders have been invited to the US’s conference, which will be held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The leaders of the world’s most polluting countries, including China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have been invited, as have the heads of some of the nations most at risk from climate change, such as Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh.

Particular attention, however, will be on the US itself. Biden is expected to set out a plan to cut American emissions significantly by 2030, in a sharp break with the Donald Trump era. He has already pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but the extent of the target he sets for this decade will be watched around the world.

Judging by Biden’s raft of recent policy proposals, from his $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus to a far-reaching federal voting rights bill, the 2030 goal will probably not lack ambition, though it may not go far enough for some climate activists. It is certain to be a drastic change of course from Trump, under whom environmental regulations were torn up and the US withdrew from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

One of Biden’s first acts upon taking office in January was to rejoin the Paris Agreement. He has spoken about the importance of combating climate change but also views decarbonising as an opportunity to create the “millions of good paying jobs” which are key to his economic agenda.

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The US remains the second-largest polluter on the planet, however. Together with China, which emits about twice as much carbon, both countries are responsible for around four-tenths of global emissions. Despite growing tensions in other areas, such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, climate change has emerged as one sphere in which the US and China are cooperating. In a joint statement issued in advance of the Earth Day summit, both countries promised “concrete action” this decade to keep the Paris target within reach. China has pledged to reach net neutrality by 2060, ten years later than the US.

According to a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, emissions would need to fall by at least 49 per cent by 2030 compared to 2017 levels to remain on track to keep global warming below 1.5°C. The world is already about one degree warmer than pre-industrial levels and is warming by around 0.2°C more each decade, the IPCC estimates.

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Global emissions have continued to rise since the 2015 Paris Agreement
Annual carbon since 1960 by country (metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent)

But although nearly all countries pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement, they have continued to rise since, according to data from the Global Carbon Project, an organisation that tracks global emissions. Much more extensive action will be required from most governments if the goal of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5°C is to be met.

The IPCC says that keeping temperatures from rising above 1.5°C would avoid some of the worst effects of global warming, such as extreme heatwaves and halving the number of species of insects, plants and animals, which would face extinction compared to a rise of 2°C. However, some scientists now believe that meeting the 1.5°C target will be “virtually impossible”, in the words of a report by the Australian Academy of Science published earlier this year. 

The Earth Day summit comes in advance of the COP 26 climate conference, due to be held in November in Glasgow, after having been delayed for a year because of the pandemic. The hope in the White House is that this month’s summit will help keep the 1.5°C target “within reach”. The measures Biden announces this week will help determine whether such hopeful talk matches reality. 

Additional data reporting by Katharine Swindells.