COP26: Biden tells world US is ready to lead fight on climate change

US President Joe Biden presents his national statement as part of the World Leaders' Summit of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, on Nov 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

GLASGOW (BLOOMBERG) - US President Joe Biden said the US is ready to be a leader again in the fight against climate change, addressing a United Nations conference in Glasgow, Scotland, despite offering no new plans to step up his country's ambitions and continued discord at home over his proposal to spend hundreds of billions advancing clean energy.

The Biden administration will "demonstrate to the world the United States is not only back at the table, hopefully leading by the power of our example," the president said Monday (Nov 1) in a speech to the summit.

"I know it hasn't been the case and that's why my administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words."

"There's no more time to hang back or sit on a fence or argue amongst ourselves," he added. "This is the challenge of our collective lifetimes."

He added that high energy prices only underscore the need to diversify sources and adopt new clean-energy technology.

Mr Biden had already announced efforts to boost spending on climate finance and strengthen federal curbs on greenhouse gas emissions before his Glasgow speech.

And he promised more announcements to come from the US during the summit on forestry, agriculture and methane.

Still, his speech - wedged alongside presentations from other leaders warning that encroaching seas and intense heat waves are creating unlivable conditions back home - was devoid of any major new pronouncements or commitments from the world's No. 2 greenhouse gas emitter.

"Biden is at Glasgow empty-handed, with nothing but words on paper," said Mr Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, in an emailed statement after the president's speech. "It is humiliating and fails to meet the moment that we're in."

Mr Biden said the US would lay out a long-term strategy to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.

Though there are multiple paths to reach those goals, the White House says they all build on the same foundation of rapidly electrifying cars and buildings while shifting to zero-emission fuels to supply their power.

Under that blueprint released Monday, the US also needs to improve efficiency, pare methane and boost efforts to strip carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

"The science is clear. We only have a brief window left before us to raise our ambitions," Mr Biden said. "This is the decisive decade in which we have an opportunity to prove ourselves."

Mr Biden proposed that the US government spend US$3 billion (S$4.05 billion) a year to help vulnerable nations adapt to rising seas, droughts and other consequences of global warming.

That would be part of the US$11.4 billion the president has already promised to provide for climate finance each year by 2024, all of which would need congressional approval.

But his pledge falls well short of calls for half of climate finance to go toward adaptation.

"God save the planet," Mr Biden said to conclude his speech to the summit.

In a session of the conference afterward, he apologised for the administration of President Donald Trump, who tried to abandon the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate.

"I guess I shouldn't apologise but I do apologise for the fact the United States, the last administration, pulled out of the Paris accords and put us sort of behind the eight ball a little bit," he said, adding that he believes Americans have since "seen the Lord" on climate change.

Mr Biden came to the Glasgow conference without some of the momentum he'd hoped to harness.

The US president was unable to convince Democrats to push forward on a vote on his massive infrastructure legislation - which contains key climate provisions - before he left Washington.

Liberals in his party have said they will not vote for that measure until the US Senate advances a separate Bill that includes US$555 billion in additional spending to propel clean energy and fight climate change.

The overall plan would, among other things, expand incentives for the use of solar power and electric vehicles while putting hundreds of thousands of Americans to work in a Civilian Climate Corps to cap abandoned oil wells and make homes more energy efficient.

Mr Biden boasted last week that if enacted, that plan - which would be the largest investment to combat the climate crisis in US history - would reduce US emissions well over a gigaton by 2030.

Yet it remains a draft proposal despite months of negotiations, and that carries the risk of consigning Glasgow to a long line of broken or half-fulfilled US promises on climate, from the Senate's failure to ratify the Kyoto treaty to the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris agreement to a failure - so far - to deliver billions pledged to help developing nations address climate change.

Sceptics argue it is hard to convince other nations to make pledges on reducing their reliance on fossil fuels and setting emissions targets when the US itself cannot move such policies through Congress.

Mr Biden said "every major economy" needs to "enhance" emissions targets set in the Paris accord.

White House officials argue that other leaders are savvy enough to understand that the legislative process is messy, and progress in the negotiations - coupled with the White House's regulatory actions - are indication enough that the administration will accomplish meaningful change.

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