President Joe Biden and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Linda Thomas-Greenfield participate in the U.N. permanent representatives virtual meeting Thursday, March 18, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

U.S., China announce new plans to decrease carbon footprints at 2021 U.N. General Assembly

Amidst a world on fire, in some cases slowly under water, and shaken up, the world’s largest carbon polluters unveil strategies to fight climate change.

On September 21, the U.S. and China announced new environment-based initiatives during their speeches to the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 76). Currently, both nations are the world’s leaders in emitting harmful contaminants, namely, carbon pollution. The duo ranks first and second respectively

While the U.S. EPA reports more than 5 billion metric tons of carbon emissions in 2019 or about 11 percent of global emissions, China produced almost double that in the same year⸺10.2 billion metric tons of CO2, nearly 28 percent of global emissions.

The recent moves can be seen as an act of enhanced solidarity as they released their respective plans in reducing their adverse impact on the planet. Such includes a long-promised collective goal of $100 billion to support climate change efforts in vulnerable regions.

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“[O]ur shared grief is a poignant reminder that our collective future will hinge on our ability to recognize our common humanity and to act together…this is the clear and urgent choice that we face here at the dawning of what must be a decisive decade for our world — a decade that will quite literally determine our futures,” expressed U.S. President Joseph Biden in his address to the 176-member assembly

According to the Administration, some of President Biden’s goals are to create a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. Added to these plans is a commitment to a net zero emissions economy no later than 2050. In conjunction with investing in “green infrastructure and electric vehicles,” Biden also stated the U.S would economically aid developing countries with $11.4 billion by 2024. 

As for President Xi Jinping of China, he agreed with Biden’s push towards international unity, hoping to promote green and low-carbon energy in developing countries. He revealed that “China will strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” Also, the communist regime intends to no longer fund coal-fired power plants abroad. 

“We need to advocate peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom, which are the common values of humanity, and reject the practice of forming small circles or zero-sum games,’” the Chinese leader declared. “[O]ne country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure, and the world is big enough to accommodate common development and progress of all countries.”

Xi Jinping President of the People’s Republic of China speak’s at a United Nations Office at Geneva. January 18, 2017. Photo credit: UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré on Flickr

The current climate 

“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways,” explained Panmao Zhai, Chinese climatologist and Working Group I Co-Chair at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “The changes we experience will increase with additional warming…[s]tabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions.”

The U.S. EPA says that carbon dioxide is the top greenhouse gas that humans emit. The gas is a combustion of fossil fuels like coal and oil for energy and transportation. In 2019, it accounted for about 80 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. 

In a turn of events, the pandemic shifted how energy was distributed and consumed. With much of the world’s activities coming to a halt during nation-wide quarantines, there was a decrease in demands, which led to lower carbon emissions. Purportedly, this is the largest decline in global carbon emission levels ever. In comparison to the 2009 financial crisis levels, it is five times less. 

However, it seems the global juggernauts’ announcements could not have come at a better time. In a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), it does not project such decreases for 2021 emissions, which may land about one percent under 2018-2019 peaks. 

The IEA details, “In 2021 global energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to rebound and grow by 4.8% as demand for coal, oil and gas rebounds with the economy.” Reportedly, this would be the largest increase in about twelve years. 

U.S. commitment

“Will we meet the threat of [a] challenging climate . . . or will we suffer the merciless march of ever-worsening droughts and floods, more intense fires and hurricanes, longer heatwaves and rising seas?” Challenged Biden

Indeed, the world is getting hotter and the U.S. is experiencing the same. Studies show that increased carbon dioxide can cause climate changes like rising sea levels and extreme weather events. U.S. states like Texas and California are experiencing major negative environmental consequences such as the consistent droughts, wildfires, rising sea levels, and even busted pipes all amplified by the heat. 

During President Obama’s tenure, he pledged almost $3 billion to fund climate change research, a major focus and early campaign promise of his Administration. He even called for international cooperation to cut down on carbon emissions

Yet, Donald Trump did not share the same commitment. Under his watch, he famously pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, an international agreement to limit global warming in late 2020. However, one presidency over and Obama’s former vice president, now President Biden, seems to hold his same commitment. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. rejoined the Paris Accords. As well, President Biden promised to double Obama-era pledges, raising from the forty fourth president’s $2.85 billion to $5.7 billion per year. In April, the world leader also promised to make investments in “green infrastructure” as well as electric vehicles. 

Chinese pledge

On the other hand, China’s announcement is significant as the more than billion person population is the top polluter in the world. At the moment, China is the world’s largest financier of coal plants, funding about 13 percent of external coal-fired plants. 

AP reports that this would close “47 planned power plants in 20 developing countries that use the fuel that emits the most heat-trapping gases, about the same amount of coal power as from Germany.”

“China was the only significant funder of overseas coal left,” asserted Georgetown University energy and environment Professor Joanna Lewis. “This announcement essentially ends all public support for coal globally.” Lewis, the director of the Science Technology and International Affairs Program added, “This is the announcement many have been waiting for.”

Last year, President Jinping promised similar goals, stating that the COVID-19 pandemic launched a “green revolution” where humankind tries as quickly as possible to create an environmentally sustainable way of life and development.

Yet and still, there is a long way to go to undue the damaging effects of pollution. With actively shrinking lakes in Indiana and Michigan all the way to Italy’s Lake Como, climate has implications far and wide. Despite increasing vaccination-requirements to certain social facets of life like school or restaurants, the world’s grand opening may tempt a surge in carbon emissions that the U.S. and China’s solutions may temporarily temper. After a brewing two-year cabin fever, the Earth can only hope humanity’s short term memory is intact.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, and Afro-Latinidad.

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