In Brief

Biden’s Earth Day Summit: What to Expect

President Biden hopes to show that the United States is ready to be a leader again in combating climate change.

President Joe Biden is convening a virtual climate summit on April 22, Earth Day, ahead of the next major UN talks, known as COP26, later this year. Up to forty world leaders will attend, but the biggest focus will be on Biden himself.

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After four years of U.S. inaction under President Donald Trump, Biden hopes to show the rest of the world that the country is once again ready to lead in the fight against climate change. With greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures continuing to rise, he is expected to announce more ambitious emissions-reduction targets and urge other countries to follow suit.

What’s the state of the fight against climate change?

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Dismal. Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the most significant global climate pact to date, nearly all countries pledged to reduce emissions. However, they continue to rise.

The world’s average temperature also keeps climbing. The Paris accord aims to keep the global average temperature from rising by 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels and, failing that, prevent it from reaching 2°C (3.6°F) above. At 1.5°C of warming, much of the world will likely see sea-level rise that puts millions of homes underwater, record-breaking droughts and floods, and widespread species loss, among other consequences.

That future seems increasingly likely. Scientists estimate that the world has already hit 1.1°C of warming and could reach 1.5°C as soon as 2030. And experts say countries’ climate pledges are not ambitious enough to avoid even higher temperature rises.

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How can Biden’s summit help?

The summit is meant to encourage countries to make stronger commitments—known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—under the Paris Agreement and “keep that 1.5-degree goal within reach,” according to a White House statement.

The Paris accord calls for countries to revisit their NDCs, which are voluntary, every five years. That was supposed to first happen in 2020, with leaders expected to announce more ambitious targets for 2030 during an annual UN climate conference, the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26), in Glasgow. But COP26 was pushed back to November 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Two people look out over downtown Los Angeles, which appears in a cloud of haze.
People take in the view of downtown Los Angeles, California, on a day with low air quality. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The European Union and the United Kingdom are among those that have already submitted new NDCs. But many governments still haven’t. The United States is expected to announce its new NDCs at the Earth Day summit.

The summit also aims to show that the United States is “in a position to lead and that it’s serious about cutting its own emissions,” CFR’s Alice C. Hill says. “If the United States doesn’t come forward and demonstrate that it’s committed to addressing climate threats, it is hard to imagine that the rest of the world will feel as energized in that endeavor.” 

Who’s coming?

Biden has invited the leaders of the world’s highest-emitting countries, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He also invited the leaders of some countries that are already feeling the effects of climate change and could suffer the worst consequences [PDF], such as Bangladesh, Jamaica, and Kenya.

What have top emitters pledged so far?

China. Last year, Xi announced that top emitter China is aiming for carbon neutrality—meaning the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere equals or exceeds that which is emitted—by 2060. Beijing also pledged to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and have renewable energy sources account for 25 percent of its total energy consumption by 2030. However, China has yet to formally submit its new NDCs.

United States. Behind only China in emissions, the United States left the Paris Agreement under the Trump administration but rejoined earlier this year. It previously committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent from its 2005 level by 2025. U.S. officials are reportedly considering cutting emissions by double that amount by 2030 as part of its new NDCs. Biden has also vowed to work toward making the United States carbon neutral by 2050.

European Union. The world’s third-largest emitter, the EU already submitted its updated NDCs [PDF], which sets a goal of cutting emissions by 55 percent of its 1990 level by 2030, higher than its original target of 40 percent. Like the United States, it aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. Experts point out that even with their updated NDCs, the EU and China are not on track to avoid 1.5°C warming.

India. In its original NDCs [PDF], India—the fourth-largest emitter—pledged to have renewable energy sources account for 40 percent of its total electricity generation by 2030 and to significantly boost forest coverage. It also aims to reduce its emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP), a ratio known as emissions intensity, by 33 to 35 percent from its 2005 level. New Delhi hasn’t yet submitted an updated target.

Correction: A previous version of the graphic on global carbon emissions incorrectly listed the unit as metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This error was corrected on May 27, 2021.

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