With the UK set to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) later this year, the Whitehouse Consultancy is bringing you a round-up of the latest energy, environment, and climate change news in its new ‘Countdown to COP’ blog series. This first instalment looks at President Biden’s climate change priorities and asks what they mean for the UK.
Once dubbed ‘sleepy Joe’ by his predecessor, President Biden has certainly not shied away from taking bold and decisive action during his first few weeks in office. Signing over a dozen executive orders in his first day, Biden has swiftly set to work to ‘detrumpify’ the White House. Contrary to intense speculation, he did not remove former President Trump’s on-demand Diet Coke button from the Oval Office (arguably one of his predecessor’s better ideas).
No, change went far deeper than that.
A raft of reforms
Biden has hit the ground running with a slew of urgent and significant reforms, ranging from mandating mask-wearing to reversing Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’. For the UK, perhaps the most consequential of all have been Biden’s measures to tackle climate change. With concerns building over a UK-US trade deal, and Biden’s support of the EU well-known, there is at least one thing both the UK and the US can agree on: the immediate and real threat of climate change.
On day one of his presidency, Biden fulfilled one of his most popular election pledges by signing an executive order committing the US to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is a legally binding framework that aims to keep rising global temperatures “well below” 2C higher than preindustrial levels. Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2017, with the formal withdrawal confirmed in November last year.
Net zero carbon emissions by 2050
President Biden followed this by joining the UK in its commitment to reach net zero by 2050 and protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030, targets which would help both countries reach the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Writing on Twitter, Boris Johnson praised Biden’s “fantastic climate leadership” and looked ahead to a US-hosted summit of world leaders in April. This summit, announced by Biden only last week, is likely to see the US commit to further carbon reduction pledges, something which will almost certainly help the UK in its ambition to steer other countries to more specific targets.
With the US having been out of the climate loop for four years, Biden will likely look to the UK and other big players for leadership on climate change – or else seek to fill that position himself. Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, acknowledged that the US must approach action with a “certain sensitivity and humility”. The US is also the world’s second largest carbon dioxide emitter behind China, so will not be taken seriously on the international stage without serious domestic work first.
Whilst the UK has already made significant strides, actions speak louder than words. If Johnson wants to guide other countries into committing to more specific and long-term action, his government must continue to set the example in the run-up to the summit. The UK was one of the first countries to commit to net-zero back in 2019, however momentum around climate change has since slowed.
Delay for Environment Bill
Last week, the government’s Environment Bill was delayed for a third time, which prompted some environmental groups to question the government’s commitment to the Bill. The pressure is now on for the Bill to become law just in time for COP26 in November. And it’s not just government that is feeling the pressure; many local councils and businesses are not on track to meet targets either.
A US president amongst the guest list will be a crucial element to the summit’s success and will surely help to repair the UK’s relationship with the former Vice President, following some post-Brexit and post-Trump reputational damage. The summit is the litmus test for Johnson’s Global Britain agenda, but in a year of compromising setbacks, it is also a chance to prove his commitment to a green recovery.
Promoting former Energy Secretary Alok Sharma to a full-time COP26 presidency role to enable him to concentrate wholly on the preparation for the summit was a welcomed step towards demonstrating this commitment, but actions must go further. With COP26 on the horizon and a sympathetic US president now in charge, there is no finer opportunity for the UK to step up to its climate change responsibilities and establish its green post-Brexit status on the global stage.
The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.