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Biden touts U.S. climate progress at COP27, unveils new methane plan

President Biden announced a set of small new actions by his administration to address climate change in a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference on Friday. The new measures include pledging more than $200 million in funding for climate change resilience and adaptation in developing countries, and a new plan to reduce emissions of methane — an especially potent greenhouse gas — from oil and gas infrastructure.

President Biden at the podium with a backdrop that says: COP27, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt 2022.
President Biden addresses the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Friday. (Mohamed Abdel Hamid/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“The climate crisis is about human security, economic security, environmental security, national security and the very life of the planet,” Biden said in a speech at the conference, known as COP27 and held this year in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. “So today, I’d like to share with you how the United States is meeting the climate crisis with urgency and with determination to ensure a cleaner, safer, healthier planet for all of us.”

Most of what Biden went on to share was a recapitulation of actions the administration has already taken, including significant investments in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions through subsidies for clean energy sources, such as wind and solar power and electric vehicles, included in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. These programs are projected to help cut U.S. emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by the end of this decade.

Journalists, seen from behind, seated in front of large computer screens showing President Biden.
Journalists in the media center at COP27 follow Biden's speech. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S., however, had committed at previous climate conferences to cut emissions by 50% by 2030. In Glasgow, Scotland, last year, Biden administration officials and congressional Democrats in attendance boasted of the president’s “Build Back Better” bill, which included more expansive climate change components and would have put the U.S. on track to meet the 50% target. Although the House of Representatives passed the measure shortly after delegates met in Glasgow in November 2021, it subsequently died in the Senate. The Inflation Reduction Act, a curtailed version of the Build Back Better initiative, left out or scaled back the prior legislation’s most ambitious climate programs.

Still, the Inflation Reduction Act was the first major law passed in the U.S. to address the climate crisis. The Biden administration now hopes to bridge the gap between that law and its prior emissions commitments through additional regulatory measures. These include the new methane rule proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency, which was announced to coincide with Biden’s address, as well as actions by states and the private sector.

During the president’s speech Friday, the most enthusiastic response from the audience came when he pledged that the U.S. would still live up to its word on meeting emissions cuts.

“I can say with confidence, the United States will meet our emissions targets by 2030,” he said to sustained applause.

John Kerry and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, seated at a single table in the auditorium, applaud.
John Kerry, U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack applaud Biden at COP27 on Friday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters) (REUTERS)

Cognizant of the developing world’s concern over whether the U.S. will also commit to helping poorer countries develop economies based on clean energy, Biden emphasized that the Inflation Reduction Act will not only reduce American emissions but make cleaner technologies more affordable globally. The new focus on expanding the technology should help industry introduce economies of scale and increase technical breakthroughs, he said.

“[The bill] will spark a cycle of innovation that will reduce the cost and increase the availability of clean energy technology that will be available to countries worldwide, not just the United States,” he said. “It will accelerate decarbonization beyond our borders.”

As has often been the case at recent climate change conferences, the actions of Biden’s climate-science-denying predecessor, former President Donald Trump, cast a shadow on the proceedings. Biden was interrupted by applause when he noted that his administration had “immediately rejoined the Paris [climate] agreement” upon taking office. Referring in an apparent ad lib to his predecessor's decision to withdraw the U.S. from the climate pact, Biden said, “I apologize we ever pulled out of the agreement.”

President Donald Trump emphasizes his point at the microphone.
Then-President Donald Trump, in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2017, discusses the United States' role in the Paris climate change accord. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP) (AP)

Delegates from developing nations have been pushing wealthy countries to increase climate aid, and the question of how much the U.S. and its allies will step up is a focus of tension at this year’s conference. Biden rehashed an array of assistance programs his administration has recently launched to help developing nations adapt to and prepare for the effects of climate change, which, he acknowledged, disproportionately harm poorer countries. For instance, he noted that the White House announced in late September that the U.S. will provide $22 million in assistance to small island nations in the Pacific Ocean to monitor weather and ocean data and project the impact of climate change.

The president also had some new contributions to tout. The Biden administration announced a new commitment of $13.6 million Friday to “help fill weather, water, and climate observation gaps in Africa” and $15 million to help Africa meet U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s goal of ensuring that within five years, the entire world be covered by an early warning system for climate-change-related natural disasters.

Some environmental activists, such as Jean Su, a director at the Center for Biological Diversity, considered those commitments inadequate, and called on Biden to commit to U.S. funding for loss and damage, which would establish a fund with contributions from nations or corporations that have grown rich from fossil fuels to help compensate developing countries for the destruction caused by climate change.

Vice President Al Gore and Gavin McCormick in front of a detailed map of the globe showing the lines of communication and centers of population covered by the new Climate TRACE platform,.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, center, and Gavin McCormick, CEO of WattTime, present the new Climate TRACE platform, a global inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, Thursday at the conference. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

“The call for loss-and-damage funding at this conference has been louder than ever before, so it’s disturbing that Biden was silent on paying off the tremendous debt the United States owes as the world’s largest historical climate polluter,” Su said.

Yet there are clear limits for how much U.S. funding Biden can commit without new congressional appropriation. Should Republicans retake control of the House of Representatives, that prospect will be further diminished. Last year, the United Nations projected that total climate finance for adaptation in developing countries will require $140 billion to $300 billion per year by 2030.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who traveled to Egypt with a congressional delegation, signaled her support for Biden’s climate agenda, but it is not clear whether she will still be speaker in January, pending the outcome of the midterm elections.

The president did have new domestic climate actions to announce, however. Earlier in the day, the administration issued the new proposed rule for curbing methane leakage in oil and gas wells and pipelines. The initial U.S. proposal made at COP26 in Glasgow had loopholes, including inadequate inspections of old wells, according to such experts as David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Climate and Clean Energy Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The new measure attempts to close them and will probably be more effective, Doniger told Yahoo News.

“The EPA is proposing new limits to cut the U.S. oil and gas industry’s unchecked emissions of this dangerous climate pollutant,” he said in a statement. “By cutting pollution from routine flaring, requiring regular monitoring and repair at all leak-prone wells and incorporating third party leak monitoring into EPA enforcement, the EPA is moving to cut climate pollution and protect the health and wellbeing of communities nationwide.”

Cover thumbnail photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images