Biden’s climate summit: What you need to know


Australia will not get the comprehensive climate flogging some activists have predicted at Joe Biden's summit this week, a leading analyst of the US/Australian alliance has suggested.

The virtual summit of 40 world leaders taking place on Thursday and Friday has already generated policy momentum, with Washington and Beijing committing to work together on climate issues, and Canada announcing it will cut CO2 emissions by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The US, Japan and South Korea are all poised to announce ambitious new emissions targets for 2030 during the summit, which could be as high as 50 per cent.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not anticipated to announce any increase to the Australian targets (26-28 per cent emissions cuts by 2030) when he talks today, with the government instead saving its hand until the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow in November.

Professor Simon Jackman from the United States Studies Centre said the Biden summit would be primarily "scene setting before Glasgow", with the aim of "nudging countries toward tangible goals".

"You don't invite people and wag a finger at them," he said.

And despite frequent references to Australia being a "climate laggard", Canberra "has a reasonably strong set of talking points", Prof Chapman said, noting that unlike the US, we never left the Paris Agreement.


Professor Simon Jackman, Chief Executive Officer, United States Studies Centre. Picture: Supplied
Professor Simon Jackman, Chief Executive Officer, United States Studies Centre. Picture: Supplied


The Morrison government's "technology not taxes" approach to tackling climate was not dissimilar to the Biden administration's, Prof Chapman said.

"It's really hard to see a carbon tax getting up in the US Congress," he said.

According to Prof Chapman, Washington has developed a good understanding of the peculiar complexities of the climate debate down under, with former ambassador Arthur Culvahouse calling it "the third rail of Australian politics".

The "third rail" - a metaphor often ascribed to social security in US politics - refers to the electrified rail in the New York subway, which brings instant death to all who touch it.

"The State Department also well remembers how upset the Australians were during the G20 summit in Brisbane. Obama's speech at the University of Queensland blindsided the Australians on climate," Prof Champan said.

"Getting Australia off-side on climate is really counter productive to some of the bigger issues," he said.


Former US president Barack Obama speaking at the University of Queensland during the G20. His remarks about climate change came as a shock to his G20 host, Tony Abbott.
Former US president Barack Obama speaking at the University of Queensland during the G20. His remarks about climate change came as a shock to his G20 host, Tony Abbott.


While the Biden summit includes leaders of several developing nations, no Pacific countries other than New Zealand have been invited, and their absence "may make (the summit) a little easier for Australia," Prof Chapman said.

Their omission pushes focus away from the effects of climate change and toward its causes, and was justifiable, Prof Chapman suggested, because "it's really the emitters you want to extract commitments from".

"There will be plenty of opportunity for smaller nations to have their say at Glasgow," he said.

Pressure on Australia may come from European nations, particularly if carbon tariffs are raised, Climate Council economics expert Nicki Hutley said.

"It's not something that's been flagged, but given the Europeans will be there and this is something that's clearly on their agenda … I'd be surprised if it was not part of the conversation," she said.

The Europeans are "definitely going ahead" with carbon tariffs, the US is looking at the issue and Australian protestations that it was a new form of protectionism were likely to carry little weight, Ms Hutley said.

There will be enormous pressure on Australia to up its climate commitments, she said.

"We want to have a voice and a role in other areas and if we don't play ball on climate change that will reduce our ability to have a voice on a whole host of other issues where we want our voice to be important," Ms Hutley said.








The summit takes place on Thursday and Friday, 8am - 1pm US Eastern Standard Time, which is 10pm - 3am Australian EST.



US President Joe Biden invited the heads of 40 countries, including all the big powers and big emitters, including China, Russia, UK, Japan, India and the European Union. While the leaders of Pacific island nations have not been invited, regional powers including Indonesia, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand will all be represented.



According to Professor Simon Jackman from the United States Studies Centre, Biden "wants to project an image that America is back taking climate change seriously - and not just back, but leading a coalition of the world's largest economies".

Biden also has a "very narrow window" for action while the Democrats retain control of both houses of Congress, Prof Chapman said.

"He's got the ability to move, but it disappears very quickly," he said.




Professor Will Steffen from the Australian Climate Council. Picture: Gary Ramage
Professor Will Steffen from the Australian Climate Council. Picture: Gary Ramage


The White House said Mr Biden would announce an "ambitious 2030 emissions target" by the time of the summit, prompting speculation as to how ambitious it will actually be.

Carbon Market Institute CEO John Connor said there was "considerable pressure" for Biden to announce a 50 per cent target for 2030.

"Whether they will go that far, I don't know, but it will be more than the 26-28 per cent by 2030 that Australia has on the table," he said.

Professor Will Steffen from the ANU Climate Change Institute said he would "be surprised" if Biden's target was "any weaker than 40 per cent".

Previously, the US had a goal of reducing emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025, but former President Donald Trump nullified that goal when he withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. Biden announced the US would rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office.






Mr Morrison is not expected to announce a new emissions target as part of the summit.

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia has pledged to cut emissions by between 26-28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

A government spokesperson told News Corp that Australia "is already committed to achieving net zero emissions".

"Our goal is to do that as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050."

The spokesperson said Australia's track record "is one of reducing emissions faster than our developed country peers".

"Between 2005 and 2018, Australia's emissions fell faster than Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Korea or the United States. Over that same period, half of G20 members actually increased their emissions."

According to the latest figures from the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, Australia's emissions are currently 19.0 per cent below 2005 levels.

Labor has committed to net zero emissions by 2050 but a policy it took to the 2019 federal election, calling for a 45 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 has been shelved.

Speaking to an online forum convened by the Australian Institute last week, the party's Climate Change and Energy Spokeserson Chris Bowen gave an insight into how Labor would be approaching the issue going forward, saying he would present "a jobs and economic policy that deals with climate change".

Mr Bowen didn't discuss interim targets, but said "You can't have net zero in 2050 without a strong road map, and you can't start that in 2048".

"We need to start now," he said. "The best time to start action on climate change was 30 years ago; the second best time is today."






Most of Australia's trading partners have now committed to a net zero emissions goal by 2050, including the US, UK, Japan, South Korea and the European Union.

Increasingly, attention is turning towards what targets countries will set for themselves for the year 2030.

Last week Canada announced it would try to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 36 per cent by 2030, and there is speculation that Japan will announce an even more ambitious goal - possibly as much as 45 per cent.

Expect more announcements from other countries at the Biden summit.



Last year China announced a net zero goal for 2060 - but according to leading economist Nicki Hutley, that policy may have included some built-in wiggle room, giving Beijing a 'win', should they subsequently decide to bring that goal forward by a decade, in line with other nations.

"As the world's largest emitter they need to act as fast as they can, and they probably have more control to invest in renewables and green initiatives because of the way the government system works," Ms Hutley said. "They invest billions in infrastructure and they have more felixibiltiy that many other countries to lift their game faster."

Prof Chapman stressed the importance of China being part of all discussions about global emissions.

"China has to be part of the picture," he said. "Where China goes, so too does the planet on climate."







The planet is warming because of the rising level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Most recent research suggests the land has warmed an average of 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and the Earth's oceans are warming at an even faster rate. Scientists predict this warming will continue for some time to come, and the Paris Agreement seeks to limit that warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming.

Recently, a report from the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) warned the possibility of holding temperature increases to 2 degrees was waning, and a planet that was three degrees warmer was "increasingly likely". A three-degree warmer would is one that would see massive losses in biodiversity, extreme climatic conditions and the virtual destruction of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the AAS report stated.



The summit will include a plenary session focused on ambition-raising announcements from leaders, as well as major sessions devoted to technologies that will enable countries to meet their emissions targets, and how they can be financed. Another session will explore the jobs opportunities arising from the transition to lower-emission energy sources.



Expect climate change and emissions to be front and centre during all international forums this year, including the G7 meeting in June, to which Australia has been invited as a guest, and the G20 meeting in October.

The UN Climate Change Conference will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, between November 1 and 12.


Originally published as Biden's climate summit: What you need to know


Economist Nicki Hutley from the Climate Council. Picture: Supplied
Economist Nicki Hutley from the Climate Council. Picture: Supplied