Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Op-Ed: The U.S. Must Further its Climate Commitment to Live Up to its “Fair Share”

By Abraham ReissPublished September 10, 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on tackling climate change prior to signing executive actions in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2021.
While President Biden’s climate leadership has been a positive development, the U.S. has a serious responsibility to go much further in order to combat the global climate crisis.

President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate, held on April 22nd and 23rd, was a refreshing moment for many environmental advocates. During the convention of leaders from 40 countries, Biden pledged that the U.S. would double its international finance commitment by 2024, as well as cut its emissions down 50-52% by 2030. Following former president Trump’s withdrawals from international climate commitments, including his memorable removal from the Paris climate agreement, Biden’s effort represented a significant re-establishment of the U.S. as a leader of tackling climate change.


While Biden’s climate leadership is a step in the right direction, the U.S. has a long way to go in order to contribute its global “fair share” of emissions reductions. The country's leadership in historical emissions, current emissions per capita, and status as one of the world’s wealthiest nations creates serious domestic and international responsibilities that far exceed Biden’s recent commitments.


In July 2020, the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) reported that the U.S.’ “fair share” of emission reductions by 2030 should reach a reduction of 195% from 2005 levels. This goal is based on the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as well as the United States’ capacity and responsibility, factoring in the country’s current and historical contributions to climate change. 


USCAN’s benchmark of 195% reduction dwarfs Biden’s commitment of 50-52%. However, it is important to note that the 195% level represents a combination of domestic and international reductions. USCAN’s goal for domestic emissions reduction by 2030 is 70%, a mark far closer to Biden’s pledge, though still considerably more ambitious. USCAN contends that the remainder of reductions must come from reducing emissions in lower-income countries, which would be spearheaded by U.S. financial and technological contributions. There is plenty of ground to be gained in this arena: according to an analysis by the Climate Policy Initiative, the United States’ average international investment from both its public and private sectors since 2011 ($4.4 billion) represent a meager 6% of the total global contributions. 


Biden’s summit pledge in April recognized the integral role of the U.S.’ commitment to international climate finance, most notably with its issue of America’s first International Climate Finance Plan. This plan involves the U.S.’ commitment to increasing its international climate aid, promising to double national contribution levels set under the Obama administration by 2024. However, this plan indicates that the U.S. would spend between $5 and 6 billion annually, a number by which many climate activists have been dissatisfied. Campaigners from groups like ActionAid USA have called for a total American contribution of $800 billion to international campaign finance throughout this decade, of which Biden’s re-vamped commitment would fall far short. 


Furthermore, the United States currently owes $2 billion to the United Nations-created Green Climate Fund (GCF), a part of a $3 billion Obama-era pledge that Donald Trump failed to deliver. A recent letter signed in Feburary 2021 by 46 US NGOs advocated for the Biden Administration to commit $8 billion to the GCF, which would fulfill the $2 billion owed and add a replenishment fund of $6 billion. Another letter signed in March 2021 by 40 Democratic members of Congress advocated for the Biden Administration to make a $6 billion commitment, including a $4 billion authorization in the fiscal year 2022. In early April, before the summit, Biden requested $1.2 billion from Congress for the GCF, which global climate campaigners called “insulting.” Although U.S. climate envoy John Kerry followed up on Biden’s request at a GCF event on April 20, claiming that the $1.2 billion was “just the beginning,” the White House’s release of the U.S.’ Climate Finance Plan during the first day of the Leaders Summit on Climate did not mention any commitment to the GCF.


The Biden Administration, despite making a laudable effort to invigorate the international fight against climate change, has fallen far short of the commitment levels necessary to lower both domestic and international reductions. The United States must continue to escalate its commitments and should rapidly break new ground in order to act as a true international leader and to make up for the past four years of inaction from Trump’s presidency. Increasing commitments would move the U.S. towards its “fair share” of emissions reductions and exert pressure on other countries to do the same. 

Works Cited

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