GLASGOW, Scotland — President Joe Biden and his European allies are now working on Plan B to save his climate goals.
The Biden administration and European governments had been triangulating their climate strategy for months to push China, by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, to get in line with their plans to zero-out the planet-warming pollution. But that approach largely failed. China rejected that pressure at the G-20 summit in Rome, and its delegates came to Scotland showing little movement on climate.
President Xi Jinping didn’t even bother attending the Glasgow climate conference, and he won't be joining by video either. Biden chastised China, as well as Russia, in a press conference at the end of the G-20 meeting, saying the countries “basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change.”
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One en route to Glasgow that China was one of the “significant outliers … who will not be represented at the leader level at COP26 and who we do believe has an obligation to step up to greater ambition as we go forward. And we'll keep pressing on that.”
But he added: “There are other countries as well.”
As Beijing brushed aside U.S. overtures, Biden instead turned to Indonesian President Joko Widodo for his first bilateral meeting at the COP26 United Nations talks. Also in Widodo’s diary was U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Indonesia contributes nowhere near the 27 percent of global emissions China's economy spews out. But it is still responsible for 2 percent of global greenhouse gases, and is one of the world's leading coal exporters. Experts say stopping climate change will be impossible without addressing the greenhouse gases produced by large countries like it with growing economies.
With little engagement from China, the U.S., EU and U.K. are pivoting to press Indonesia, India, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil to score potential climate victories — and hoping to reach their goal of keeping global temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. Above that mark, many disastrous climate changes get locked in, from rising sea levels to devastating storms and punishing droughts.
Biden and his climate envoy John Kerry have engaged in aggressive shuttle diplomacy with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country is the planet's third largest carbon dioxide emitter. The two governments have worked on deals to bring public and private sector finance to help India reach Modi’s goal of deploying 450 gigawatts of renewable power by 2030 — equivalent to the capacity of more than 400 nuclear reactors.
Modi announced a new target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2070. He also announced goals for India to hugely increase its clean energy capacity before 2030 and lower its emissions intensity, a measure of the amount of greenhouse gases released per unit of economic activity.
One U.K. official said India's “meaty” near-term goals would boost the clean energy sector so much that it made the country's 2070 goal look quite conservative.
The pressure on Modi hasn’t just come from the U.S. Its former British colonizers have sought to leverage their historical ties with Delhi to get Modi to make a major announcement at the event. Modi and Johnson met at the U.N. talks, where the British leader announced a U.K.-India “green guarantee,” which Downing Street said would unlock more than $1 billion in World Bank funding for clean energy and other green projects.
The U.K. official said the strategy of targeting large coal-using nations with incentives was obvious to get the “biggest bang for your buck.” Many of those economies are at a “pivotal moment” where the right investments can enable them to leapfrog traditional development pathways that have historically relied on coal. India is the world's second largest coal consumer behind China.
The strategy also has the benefit of deepening ties with countries that have been drawn to China through its “Belt and Road” investment program, such as South Africa, which has received energy sector investments from Beijing.
The U.S. and several European countries have floated a clean energy finance deal to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government in an effort to drive decarbonization of Eskom, the troubled state-backed, coal-heavy utility. That partnership is starting to bear fruit.
On Tuesday, Biden, Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are expected to launch the “Just Energy Transition Partnership” alongside France and Germany to overhaul South Africa’s power sector. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it “especially interesting,” adding that it could “show that it is possible to phase out coal. I think this can serve as a pilot project for many countries on the African continent.”
Kerry also praised in a tweet Brazil’s new pledge on Monday to end illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2028, cut the country's emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.
Critics contend Bolsonaro — who like former U.S. President Donald Trump has regularly derided climate science — cannot be trusted to keep those commitments, and that he's already allowed destruction of wide swathes of the rainforest and is simply softening his position ahead of a tough re-election next year. But Kerry nonetheless pursued engagement with Bolsonaro’s government despite skepticism from environmental and indigenous groups.
Kerry even touted Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s recent moves on climate, visiting him in Mexico shortly before the G-20 meeting where many world leaders met before traveling to Glasgow. Kerry's trip came as the Mexican president pursued constitutional changes granting Mexico's state-backed power company more market share, a move opponents said would crush renewable power in the country.
Despite those fears, Kerry told reporters that Mexico had “committed to deploy all major renewables — geothermal, hydro, and wind and solar — which they weren't even willing to talk about literally even a few months ago.”
Meanwhile, Johnson floated the idea that Indonesia may consider phasing out coal-fired power by 2040, comments that came on the heels of the G-20 calling to an end for the fuel source. Kerry told reporters that the U.S. has been engaging with Indonesia for months.
But for Indonesia, which is made up of thousands of islands that could be at risk from rising seas, climate change presents complex problems.
“It’s always been more than coal with Indonesia,” Jonathan Pershing, Kerry’s deputy at the State Department, told POLITICO. He noted that oil shipments to the archipelago nation for heating are on the rise and that widespread cutting of carbon-storing forests for palm oil production occurs under its watch.
Another U.K. official said its negotiators in Glasgow had redoubled their efforts to attract “regional influencers” in the wake of China’s withdrawal from the conference, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. Countries were being “picked off sectorally” including Vietnam on coal and Thailand on deforestation.
Vietnam is also seen as a prize, given its location on China’s doorstep. Last Sunday, Johnson spoke with Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính, and then U.K. diplomats met with Chính again immediately before he departed for Glasgow. On Monday he committed to a net zero goal for 2050.
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