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Can the U.S. Fulfill Its COP 26 Climate Promises?

Environmental Policy Brief #127 | By: Katelyn Lewis | November 23, 2021

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Policy Summary

Climate experts say the gathering of leaders from around the world in Glasgow, Scotland, for a two-week climate meeting led to  imperfect, yet possible, updates to the Paris Agreement to slow global warming. The success of COP 26 depends on whether countries, including the United States, hold up their end of the bargain. 

“That would look like enacting legislation, and getting the investments in place … that will put the U.S. on a trajectory to meet its (nationally determined contributions),” Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said during a post-COP26 panel discussion. 

The Conference of the Parties, or COP26, was a summit held in Glasgow, Scotland, between Oct. 31 and Nov. 12. World leaders, members of civil society, and nonprofit organizations from 196 countries and the European Union came together to discuss their countries’ national and foreign commitments, alliances, promises, and action plans to combat climate change and keep the earth’s temperature from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A panel of five leading climate experts, including Keohane, gathered on a video conference call on Thursday, Nov. 17, to discuss their takeaways from the conference and the actions the U.S. will need to take to meet its targets by COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2022.

“[In Glasgow,] there was an ambition ratchet, but there was also an implementation ratchet in there, and that was very clearly geo-political because China was talking about implementation [while] America was talking about ambition,” Nick Mabey, E3G’s co-founding director and CEO, said.

Notably, the U.S. joined the Global Forest Finance Pledge, mobilizing $12 billion to combat deforestation; co-launched with the European Union the Global Methane Pledge, an initiative to reduce global methane emissions with more than $300 million in financial support; and, through the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE), work with Congress to commit $3 billion in adaptation finance annually by FY2024 to help vulnerable, developing countries on the frontlines of climate change’s impacts.

Helen Mountford, president of climate economics for the World Resources Institute, said the methane and forest loss and deforestation pledges showed “some of the real dynamism” of how groups of actors – countries, the private sector, the finance sector, and civil society – can work together to step up and “ actually make the changes we need on the ground” in the next year.

Policy Analysis

For example, more than 100 countries signed on to the Global Methane Pledge “to basically slash emissions of methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas, by 30% by 2030,” Mountford said during the discussion.

“[Methane]’s been left out of a lot of the discussions in the past and a lot of the country pledges, so they came together and said, ‘Okay, this is something we can tackle, we know what the sources are, we know what we can do. Let’s do it together,’” Mountford said. “But then we also start to see some of the finance coming through from the philanthropic sector from others looking at how to actually deliver this on the ground.”

U.S. leaders also announced a national commitment to develop a Sustainable Ocean Plan in the next five years that will use and manage ocean waters under its jurisdiction to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide jobs and food security, improve climate resilience, and sustain biological diversity,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

While a step in the right direction, the commitments outlined in the climate agreement from COP26 don’t quite prevent the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Washington Post reports, with the Earth on track to surpass that threshold, leading to “escalating weather crises and irreversible damage to the natural world.”

And though the U.S. President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act – including $500 billion to combat climate change, primarily through renewable energy credits – passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, it faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate.

“The big unknown is whether one senator or two senators will block the legislation from moving forward,” John Podesta, founder of and chair of the board of directors for the Center for American Progress, said during the online discussion. Podesta said he predicted a “slightly better than a 50-50 chance” of its success in the Senate.

Photo taken from: CNBC

“I think if Biden doesn’t have that, then the credibility of the United States – that we’re aligned with keeping 1.5 alive- the credibility will be busted,” Podesta said.

“The U.S. must pass the Build Back Better Act,” Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said during the panel discussion.

“It would be historic in terms of scale, but … even if that gets passed, and you have really strong rules, and you have strong state and local action, it is a narrow path to a 50 to 52%” reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030 proposed by the Biden administration, Bapna said.

John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, expressed insights in-line with the panelists post-conference when he said:”COP 26  conference was inspiring and pioneering in terms of countries’ commitments to addressing the climate crisis, but now’s the time to put muscle behind the pledges made.”

“COP26 already helped summon more ambition to face this emergency than the world has ever seen,” Kerry said in a statement. “Still, a gap remains between the ambition the world demonstrated and the actions we need to solve this challenge. We always knew that Glasgow would be a new beginning, not a finish line.”

“It will be up to us to keep the attention and urgency laser focused so that we continue to implement solutions and act with the urgency we need,” Kerry said.

Engagement Resources​

Represented Organizations:

Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G) – https://www.e3g.org

Center for American Progress (CAP) – https://americanprogress.org/

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – https://www.nrdc.org/

World Resources Institute (WRI) – https://www.wri.org/

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) – https://www.c2es.org/

More Engagement Resources:

CNBC – House Passes $1.75 Trillion Biden Plan That Funds Universal Pre-K, Medicare Expansion and Renewable Energy Credits (Nov. 19, 2021) – https://www.cnbc.com/2021/11/19/biden-build-back-better-bill-house-passes-social-safety-net-and-climate-plan.html

The Washington Post – World Leaders Reach Climate Agreement at U.N. Summit Following Two Weeks of Negotiation (Nov. 13, 2021) – https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/11/13/cop26-glasgow-climate-deal/

U.S. Department of State – Joining the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Nov. 2, 2021)  https://www.state.gov/joining-the-high-level-panel-for-a-sustainable-ocean-economy/

The White House – President Biden Announces the Build Back Better Framework (Oct. 28, 2021)  https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/10/28/president-biden-announces-the-build-back-better-framework/

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