After a moment when hopes dimmed that the United States could become an international leader on climate change, legislation Congress is poised to approve could renew the country’s reputation and strengthen its efforts to pressure other nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more quickly.
The head-spinning incident, which has created a gleeful case of neck-slapping among Democrats and environmentalists, is a reminder of how domestic politics are intertwined with global diplomacy.
Advocates feared that last month’s breakdown in negotiations in Congress had undermined efforts to limit the catastrophic effects of global warming. Now they are energized by the opportunity to present an unprecedented American success.
“This says, ‘We’re back, baby,'” said Jennifer Turner, who works on international climate issues as director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum in Washington.
The legislation, which also has provisions on taxes and prescription drugs, includes about $375 billion over the next decade for clean energy development and financial incentives to buy electric cars, install solar panels and wean the grid off fossil fuels. Although the proposals were scaled back during difficult negotiations, it is the largest single investment in climate change in US history and a significant shift from years of inaction that limited Washington’s influence abroad.
The Senate passed the legislation on Sunday, and the House is expected to approve it on Friday. It then goes to President Joe Biden for his signature.
Poor nations remain concerned that rich countries such as the United States have not met financial commitments to help them tackle global warming and transition to clean energy, which the legislation does not address. But Biden can still point to it as proof that the US political system can address the world’s most pressing problems.
“Our ability to have credibility on the global stage depends on our ability to deliver at home,” said Ali Zaidi, White House deputy national climate adviser. “We are the pace car. It helps others go faster and faster.”
After President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, Biden took office promising to rejoin the fight against global warming. He set an ambitious new target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030 – and began proposing policies to put the country on track.
The legislation that Biden is expected to sign is estimated to reduce emissions between 31% to 44%, according to an analysis by the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm. Additional regulatory steps by the administration could close the rest of the gap.
“It’s good that the United States is finally trying to catch up after years of dragging its feet on climate change, and this investment will go a long way toward undoing some of the damage caused by President Trump’s administration,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa. a think tank based in Nairobi, Kenya.
The move for the bill comes just three months before the next United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, which will take place in Egypt.
“Let’s hope this legislation is the start of more international cooperation ahead of the COP27 summit, where the most vulnerable get the support they need,” Adow said.
Although the US will still face entrenched skepticism, progress in Washington could also give John Kerry, the White House’s special climate envoy, more momentum at the conference in November.
“It puts wind in his sails, it gives him a real credibility boost,” Turner said. “This will change the whole dynamic.”
Several experts said the United States would be empowered to put more pressure on China, India and other nations that have high emissions but have been unwilling to cut for economic reasons.
“This restores some diplomatic legitimacy to the United States as an influential player in international climate negotiations,” said Scott Moore, director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.
Shayak Sengupta, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation America, a Washington-based affiliate of a think tank in India, was less enthusiastic.
“Given that this bill is long overdue after years of US climate inaction, many countries may see this as the ‘bare minimum’ of America’s historic and moral climate responsibility,” he said.
Sengupta stressed that poor nations are still looking to rich countries to meet their $100 billion commitment for economic aid to address global warming, an issue that has been a sore spot in international negotiations.
There will also be no shortage of other challenges. If Republicans recapture Congress or the White House, they could derail Biden’s rise. Supply chains may struggle to meet increased demand for equipment such as solar panels and batteries. China’s Foreign Ministry announced Friday that the country is suspending direct climate talks with the United States in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, cutting a rare point of long-standing, if sometimes turbulent, cooperation between the two countries.
However, experts said China will still take notice if the United States succeeds in becoming a clean energy powerhouse.
“For some time now, China has been a leader in clean energy investment globally,” said Xizhou Zhou, an expert on climate and sustainability at S&P Global, a global research firm. “They will likely see this legislation as a competitive advantage.”
Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on China politics and energy at Villanova University and a former US diplomat in Beijing, said the result could be lower prices globally.
“To the extent that the U.S. really starts investing in things that compete with key Chinese businesses — in solar, wind, electric vehicles, batteries — I think you’re going to see Chinese businesses interested in increasing their competitiveness in those industries, by to make better products and lower prices,” she said.
It can have ripple effects around the world.
“Developing countries could see renewable energy prices go down, and adoption go up,” Seligsohn said.
Vibhuti Garg, an energy economist focusing on India, said US investments in clean energy research could pay dividends in poorer countries that don’t have the same resources to develop new technologies.
“The United States can share its technological know-how with other countries, especially the Global South,” she said.
Aditya Ramji, of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, said cooperation — along with financial aid — will be essential.
“At some point there will have to be discussions about how they can provide access to intellectual property or reduce costs for countries like India and others to exploit electric car technology,” he said.
Climate activists said the US legislation is just one step on a larger path towards climate action. More progress is needed to put the world on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal that some scientists believe is slipping out of reach.
“We have to fight for political commitments in other countries,” said climate activist Luisa Neubauer, a leading figure in the Fridays for Future activist movement.
“That’s the only way we’re going to be able to turn this from a year of fossil fuel pushback to a year of climate justice,” she said.
Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Berlin and Sibi Arasu in Bangalore, India contributed to this report.
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