On President Biden’s Climate Summit and John Kerry’s visit to Dhaka

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen at State Guest House Padma on Friday, 9 April, 2021. Photo: Courtesy

US President Biden’s first act upon being sworn in as President on January 20, 2021, was to officially notify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that he was withdrawing former President Trump’s withdrawal letter from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and that the United States was rejoining the Paris Agreement.

He has since followed this up by appointing John Kerry, who was President Obama’s Secretary of State and had been key in achieving the Paris Agreement in 2015, as Biden’s Climate Envoy. He has also declared that he wants the US to not only rejoin the Paris Agreement, but to become a leader in tackling climate change with the degree of seriousness that the issue deserved.

In that vein, he also plans to hold a leaders’ climate summit on April 22, where he will be inviting 40 of the world’s leaders to join virtually and support the US in taking stronger actions regarding the climate crisis, and prepare to make really meaningful progress at COP26 (to be held in November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland, hosted by the United Kingdom).

President Biden has sent his Climate Envoy, John Kerry, around the world to hand-deliver his invitation to the leaders’ climate summit. Kerry just visited India and Bangladesh, where he delivered the invitation to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has formally accepted the invitation. During his stay in Dhaka, he was hosted for lunch by the Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, where I had the privilege of being invited to join.

So, what can our expectations be from President Biden’s Climate Summit?

The first point to reiterate is that, while the world has indeed welcomed President Biden rejoining the Paris Agreement and also his declaration that he wanted the US to become a world leader in tackling the climate crisis, he will need to earn that position of leadership. This means that his actions will speak louder than his words.

Therefore, the biggest challenge that every country has to deliver on is to make meaningful plans for getting to net zero emissions and not just pledges to reach that goal by 2050, although the pledges are indeed important as well. The US has yet to share its pledge and plans, and we look forward to some really ambitious plans which will enable the global temperature to be kept below a 1.5 degrees Centigrade warming, which is what all countries agreed to in the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Delivering these emissions reductions at the national level is by far the most important action that Biden and his government have to deliver, and will be judged by. To his credit, President Biden has indeed appointed some very climate change-savvy cabinet members and is taking an all-of-government approach to tackling climate change in the US. His recent USD two trillion infrastructure bill has detailed a lot of actions to tackle climate change. These are indeed welcome developments.

The second pledge that Biden will have to deliver on is one made by the developed countries in Paris in 2015 to collectively provide USD 100 billion a year to the developing countries so they may tackle climate change, starting from 2020. The share of the US to this pledge was USD three billion, and President Obama provided USD one billion of that just before he handed power over to Trump, who then stopped payments of the remaining amount.

Partly for this reason, the year 2020 has come and gone without the USD 100 billion having been provided to developing countries, as promised in Paris in 2015. This has left a major dent in the credibility of the developed countries.

To Biden’s credit, he has promised to pay the USD two billion that was due from the US in the year 2020 and has said that he will also raise more during 2021.

The challenge for the US will be to get all the other countries to deliver their promised amounts for both 2020 as well as 2021. An associated issue with the amounts made available is with the distribution for developing countries to either tackle mitigation or adaptation to the climate crisis. The demand from the vulnerable developing countries has always been for the ratio of support to be 50/50 for mitigation and adaptation, with the adaptation funds being targeted at the most vulnerable of the developing countries. However, from the data available so far, the ratio for 2020 was 80 percent for mitigation going to a handful of bigger developing countries and only 20 percent for adaptation in the majority of vulnerable developing countries. This imbalance must be rectified going forward.

The third and final major issue to be addressed is the fact that loss and damage due to a rise in the global temperature over one degree Centigrade due to human-induced climate change has become a reality in 2020, and people have lost lives, property and ecosystems due to super wildfires, cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes, and even droughts and heatwaves—all of which are now scientifically linked to human-induced climate change. While this does not mean that these climatic events occurred because of climate change, it is true that they have become more severe because of the higher global temperature due to the emissions of greenhouse gases over the last decades.

This topic remains a politically sensitive one, as the major-emitting countries do not wish to discuss funding for the victims of loss and damage for fear of being opened up to claims of liability and compensation. Indeed, John Kerry himself inserted a clause in the COP21 decision associated with the Paris Agreement in 2015, in which he insisted that acceptance of Article 8 on Loss and Damage in the Paris Agreement could not be used for liability and compensation.

I had the opportunity during the lunch in Dhaka to ask Kerry about his views on funding the victims of human-induced climate change for the loss and damage that they have suffered. His response was to acknowledge that this was now a reality but that we should focus on raising funds for adaptation and resilience rather than for loss and damage, which he felt would be too politically difficult in terms of convincing the US Congress, who are in charge of fund allocation.

I must say that this response disappointed me and I felt that he was repeating exactly what he had said in Paris back in 2015. The challenge for the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) countries, and for Bangladesh as their leader, is to explain and convince the Biden administration that one of the most consequential outcomes of the US government refusing to fulfil its obligations under the Paris Agreement for the last four years, has been to make the visible and scientifically attributable loss and damage from human-induced climate a reality. Even if the US does not want to make payments as forms of liability and compensation, they can still make funds available under a sense of solidarity with the victims of climate change.

President Biden finding it difficult to convince his Republican Senators to fund victims of the climate crisis is not an acceptable reason for the rest of the world to give the US a pass on this issue.

We must challenge the US to demonstrate that it recognises that loss and damage is truly attributable to human-induced climate change and that it believes the victims deserve funds, which are well beyond adaptation and resilience only.

Originally this article was published on April 14, 2021 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
Email: saleemul.huq@icccad.org