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7 takeaways from the White House climate summit of world leaders

▶ Watch Video: Biden concludes second day of climate change summit

More than 40 world leaders, 14 cabinet members, 8 CEOs and Pope Francis joined President Biden’s two-day virtual Leaders Climate Summit on Thursday and Friday. Nations touted their climate ambitions, announced collaborations, and agreed on the urgency of the climate crisis. 

Here are seven takeaways from the summit:

1. The U.S. wants to lead in the fight against climate change

Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry said Thursday that the summit reestablished the U.S. as a global leader in the climate fight. 

“We had to restore America’s credibility.  We had to prove that we were serious,” he said at a White House briefing. “And, I think, today does that in many ways.” 

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the U.S. back to the Paris climate agreement  in his summit address.

“And it’s great, by the way, that Joe has brought the United States back to the Climate Change Accords, a great step forward.”

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks as U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former Secretary of State John Kerry listen during day 2 of the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate at the East Room of the White House April 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. 

Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

A major purpose of the summit was for nations — most notably the U.S., the world’s second biggest greenhouse gas emitter — to pledge ambitious benchmarks that would put countries on track toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Biden on Thursday promised that the U.S. would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least a half from 2005 levels by 2030, from 50 to 52%. He also  announced an  “International Climate Finance Plan” outlining public and private sector investment goals to combat the climate crisis in the U.S. and abroad.  

The new emissions target, also known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC), is the Biden administration’s official submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in keeping with the Paris agreement, which Mr. Biden rejoined on the first day of his presidency. The actions he announced . represent a two-pronged approach to combating the climate crisis, by lowering emissions and by protecting countries most vulnerable to climate disasters — a  critical theme of the Paris Agreement.

“The signs are unmistakable.  The science is undeniable.  But the cost of inaction is — keeps mounting. The United States isn’t waiting,” he said Thursday. 

On Friday, Mr. Biden compared the climate crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that the threat to Earth may be dire but also presents opportunities for global partnerships and collaboration.

2. Two other industrialized countries announced new, aggressive emissions targets

Japan almost doubled its current target, and Canada aims to cut emissions by 40-45% by 2030.

Earlier in the week, the European Union agreed to cut emissions by 55% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. 

China, by far the world’s leading emitter, made no announcements. But President Xi Jinping said China would  “strictly control” its coal dependence — it’s the dirtiest form of energy and a large reason why China produces 26% of global emissions.

The U.S. and India announced a new partnership to “focus on driving urgent progress” against climate change. 

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro pledged to better protect the country’s illegally harvested rainforests by doubling enforcement funding. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country was “ready to propose a whole range of joint projects” on climate.  

Mr. Biden mentioned Putin twice on Friday, saying that the two disagree on a number of political issues but agreed to grow efforts to capture carbon from outer space. 

“I’m very heartened by President Putin’s call yesterday for the world to collaborate and advance carbon dioxide removal. And the United States looks forward to working with Russia and other countries in that endeavor. It has great promise,” said Mr. Biden. 

Mr. Biden also called for more aggressive climate financing to help developing countries address climate change and announced that his administration would try to double U.S. funding, compared to Obama administration levels.

3. Nearly every world leader pitched the fight against climate change as a chance to create job growth

When Mr. Biden discusses climate change, without fail, he mentions job growth. 

“When people talk about climate, I think jobs. Within our climate response lies an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity ready to be fired up,” he said Thursday.

To call it an opportunity may be understating the case. In order to meet net-zero emissions goals, innovation is a necessity. The executive director of the International Energy Agency pointed out that 45% of the emissions reductions needed to transition to a net-zero economy are not yet commercially available. Pursuing gains in renewable energy production and storage, carbon capture, urban design and other technologies will likely be a rich source of new jobs if nations and private sector companies follow through on the necessary investments. 

In his closing remarks Friday, Kerry said that he hoped the summit proved that the future could birth an “economic bonanza.”

4. Youth activist criticized nations for not doing enough to fight climate change 

Xiye Bastida, an indigenous Mexican climate activist, spoke Thursday as a representative of the passionate youth-led climate movement. 

“I come to this summit knowing I cannot possibly communicate all the youth voices that should be here,” she said. 

Bastida condemned world leaders for not doing enough to combat climate change. 

“I don’t want to stand here and read a list of our concerns and demands because if you had been listening you would know what they are,” she said. “The climate crisis is the result of those perpetuating and upholding the harmful systems of colonialism, oppression, capitalism and market oriented brainwashed solutions.” 

Bastida said the summit did not fully represent the communities most at risk of climate disaster and berated participants for presenting, “unambitious, non bold, so-called solutions.”

“I loved her passion and I loved what she said. I didn’t agree with every step of it […] But, boy, do I understand where she is coming from,” Kerry said. Thursday marked 50 years ago to the day testified before the Senate as a veteran against the Vietnam War. 

5. Smaller nations contributing little to greenhouse gas emissions are disproportionately suffering the consequences of climate change already

Numerous breakout sessions of the summit were committed to engaging smaller nations that barely contribute to global emissions, but, due to factors such as sea level rise, hurricanes, heat waves, and drought, are more at risk of climate disaster.

Prime Minister of Bhutan Lotay Tshering addressed world leaders, as well as President David Kabua of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. 

One session entitled “Climate Action at All Levels” featured indigenous voices from the U.S. and abroad. 

6. Climate change is viewed as national security threat

The global intelligence community was featured permanently on Thursday. The U.S. announced it would seek to “fully” integrate the effects of climate change into the analysis and assessments it offers policymakers. Director of National intelligence Avril Haines called climate change “an urgent national security threat.”  

Haines spoke alongside Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who said in his remarks that President Biden had tasked the intelligence community with producing a National Intelligence Estimate on the security implications of climate change. 

Other intelligence communities present included U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace and Jumaah Enad, Minister of Defense of Iraq.

7. ZOOM

A global summit would ordinarily be held in person, but COVID-19 made the summit a virtual one, and the video conference of world leaders had its share of entertaining moments.

French President Emanuel Macron’s remarks were cut short after a technical glitch. This left Putin, who was following Macron, sitting on screen looking puzzled and having to turn to an aide for help. 

Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkle’s recorded remarks miscued during Boris Johnson’s live address.

“Can you hear us, Angela? That’s ok. That’s all right. I think you need to mute,” Johnson told her. 

Olivia Gazis contributed to this reporting.

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