US vows leadership in global fight to counter climate change

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers his first address about climate change at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland on April 19, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The United States will challenge countries that are setting back the world's efforts to combat climate change, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday (April 19), in a speech promising American leadership on climate and making the case for how such leadership can benefit Americans.

Washington will call out countries that rely heavily on coal or invest in new coal factories, or permit massive deforestation, said Mr Blinken, who promised that America - the world's second-largest emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases behind only China - would lead by example in cutting emissions and switching to renewable energy.

Delivering his first address on climate change at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland, Mr Blinken said while the preeminent goal of America's climate policy was "preventing catastrophe", it also wants to get ahead on driving innovation, boosting exports, and creating jobs in clean energy.

On this front, the US is falling behind China, which is currently the top producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles, he warned.

"It's difficult to imagine the US winning the long-term strategic competition with China if we cannot lead the renewable energy revolution," said Mr Blinken.

"If we don't catch up, America will miss the chance to shape the world's climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values, and will lose out on countless jobs for the American people."

His comments come ahead of President Joe Biden's virtual summit on Thursday, when Washington will urge leaders of 40 countries to set more ambitious targets to protect the climate.

The Biden administration is set to unveil its own updated climate target this week, which experts anticipate will be a pledge to cut US emissions by around 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. This figure is nearly double the promise made under the Obama administration in 2014, and a far cry from the Trump administration's rollback of environmental protections.

Mr Blinken warned that the world has already fallen behind on the targets set six years ago under the Paris Climate Agreement, which he - and experts - said were not high enough to begin with.

The consensus among scientists now is that the world needs to limit global warming to 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophe. To meet this goal, countries must hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which requires a global transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.

"If America fails to lead the world on addressing the climate crisis, we won't have much of a world left," said Mr Blinken, acknowledging that America was responsible for 15 per cent of global emissions despite making up 4 per cent of the world's population.

On the other hand, even if the US does succeed in cutting its emissions to net zero, "we'll lose the fight against climate change if we can't address the more than 85 per cent of emissions coming from the rest of the world," he added.

Mr Blinken's speech on Monday set the tone for Thursday's summit, although his comments are also likely to be received with some wariness by officials in China and Brazil. The leaders of both countries have been invited to attend, but China's president Xi Jinping has not confirmed his attendance.

China generated over half the world's coal-fired power in 2020 despite its advances in clean energy, while Brazil is struggling to cut down on illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

While the climate crisis will be the centre of American foreign policy and national security, other countries' progress on climate will not be treated "as a chip they can use to excuse bad behaviour in other areas", said Mr Blinken.

"The Biden-Harris administration is united on this: Climate is not a trading card. It's our future," he said, in response to concerns that the White House might concede too much to China in trade and human rights for the sake of securing its climate cooperation.

Mr Blinken also promised that the White House will throw its weight behind boosting the competitiveness of American clean energy innovation, raising the likelihood that such technologies will become the latest arena of America's superpower competition with China.

Although China leads in solar panels, wind turbines and batteries, Mr Blinken said that there were over 40 categories of clean energy America could surge ahead in, from clean hydrogen to enhanced geothermal energy.

"No one has staked a dominant claim to these promising technologies yet," he said. "Every one of them can be American-led and American-made."

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