Demonstrators in Chicago protest President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate change accord on June 2, 2017.
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The International Renewable Energy Agency has hailed the U.S. decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord as a “crucial” step forward in the fight against climate change.
“It means a lot for the renewable world, and for the energy transition,” Francesco La Camera, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency told CNBC at the Atlantic Council’s annual Global Energy Forum.
“Coming from a superpower, one of the big emitters in the world, this is really crucial and it’s very important,” he added. “I think it will make a difference.”
The Abu Dhabi-based organization serves as a platform for international cooperation on renewable energy and has more than 180 member countries globally. The backing comes as the new Joe Biden administration scrambles to reposition the United States as a global leader on climate change policy, after four years of environmental protection rollbacks under former President Donald Trump.
“I’m optimistic that something has changed,” La Camera said, after President Biden used his first days in office to rejoin the Paris Accord, block the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, restore public land protections and launch a review of environmental regulations.
Ambitious climate agenda
The Biden administration plans to make the U.S. a 100% clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050. The administration also plans to decarbonize the U.S. power sector by 2035, tapping into renewable energy solutions and technology that can be deployed at scale and rival fossil fuels on cost.
“The commitments are very high, and very difficult to get,” La Camera said. “I hope they will fulfil their commitment,” he added. “If they do so, I think it will be a very good improvement and a big acceleration of the energy transition.”
IRENA has called upon its member states to exploit solutions such as wind, solar and geothermal energy to move the world toward climate stability, after a recent UN report said nations who failed to keep pace would face serious costs, damages and losses.
IRENA says just 35% of global electricity supply today is renewable, and this share needs to rise to around 60% by 2030 and 90% by mid-century in order to meet the Paris climate goals – an immense challenge made harder as nations emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.
Engaging in climate politics
The Biden pledge comes ahead of the UN climate summit in November known as COP26, where signatories to the Paris Agreement will submit revised plans to achieve the Paris objective. The Accord seeks to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees celsius (35.6 degrees fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2017.
The new administration and its climate envoy, Former Secretary of State John Kerry, will be under pressure to set credible climate targets and outline a game-plan to achieve its ambitions, with countries such as France and the U.K. already legally enshrining their 2050 net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goals.
The European Union, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa and Japan have also set targets to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Korea aims to become carbon neutral by 2050, and China by 2060. Experts say bolstering its climate credentials would allow the U.S. to use climate policy as a tool of foreign policy leverage.
“The Biden administration and Secretary Kerry are talking about infusing climate into every foreign-policy interaction,” Meghan O’Sullivan, Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Geopolitics of Energy project, told an Atlantic Council panel session.
“It means asking the different agencies that conduct foreign policy and national security, like the Pentagon, USAID, and the State Department, to make climate really central in their overall objective,” she said.
Climate could also form a platform for a restoration of U.S.-China relations, according to Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Centre.
“It’s a key deliverable for Biden and it’s a key deliverable for his party, so I think you should expect a very different relationship from the U.S. on climate issues,” she told CNBC.
COP26, under the presidency of the United Kingdom, starts in November.