How much does the US owe the rest of the world for climate change?


John Kerry, America’s special envoy on climate change, is on a whirlwind global tour to drum up support for a climate “leaders summit” on Earth Day. He’s hoping to re-establish the US as a climate leader and extract more serious ambition from his peers, but has been dogged by a familiar complaint from officials in developing economies: the global race to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions is fundamentally unfair.

Every country needs to reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050 to avert catastrophic climate change, according to the UN. Not all countries have contributed to the problem equally. Historically,  the US and Europe have emitted more than half of cumulative global emissions, and still produce far more climate pollution per capita than other countries.

Should the countries most responsible for climate change pick up the bill for everyone else? Politicians in China, and emerging big emitters like India or Brazil, argue they shouldn’t be asked to lift their citizens out of poverty or recover from the pandemic while phasing out the fossil energy resources that Americans and Europeans continue to take for granted.

Kerry and his colleagues should be prepared to buy back US credibility on climate change with cold hard cash, argues Mohamed Adow, director of Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa. “International equity is a fundamental tenet of the UN convention on climate change, but most rich countries refuse to pull their weight,” said Adow. “They have to be dragged kicking and screaming simply to adopt [climate commitments] that fully reflect their responsibility for the climate crisis.”

The Biden administration has already said the US should aim for net-zero emissions by 2050, but next week it is expected to announce a 2030 target, potentially a 50% reduction below 2005 levels (as business and environmental groups have advocated). US emissions have already fallen about 20% below 2005, and while they may bounce back in the wake of the pandemic, many economists believe deeper cuts are possible with existing technology. Clean energy technologies from offshore wind farms to electric cars are poised to get a big boost from Biden’s pending infrastructure spending bill.

But “the actual test,” Adow said, will be on providing finance for clean energy and climate impact adaptation in low-income countries. Will the Biden administration cough up $2 billion for the UN’s Green Climate Fund that was promised by Obama and never delivered, and scrounge for much more? Not if recent history is any guide. Back in 2010, countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development promised to raise $100 billion annually in climate finance by 2020. Only around $80 billion has been raised so far, the group estimates, and less than one-fifth—about $3 per person per day—has reached the 48 poorest countries, according to Oxfam. In reality, the true need could reach $300 billion annually by 2030.

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