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Democrats fret over getting climate deal to Biden ahead of COP26

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 26 October 2021 17:25 GMT

U.S. President Joe Biden participates virtually with the ASEAN summit from an auditorium at the White House in Washington, U.S. October 26, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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U.S. president under pressure not to show up empty-handed at U.N. climate talks starting Sunday

* Biden, Democrats want strong climate deal before COP26

* White House touts executive actions on climate

* Pressure on Biden not to 'show up empty-handed'

By David Sherfinski

WASHINGTON, Oct 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island says he has been weighing whether to show his face at the U.N. climate talks that kick off Sunday in Scotland.

He wants to make the trip, "unless it's too humiliating to go (because) we've completely disgraced ourselves in Congress".

Congressional Democrats' stalled push to enact key parts of U.S. President Joe Biden's climate agenda has Democratic lawmakers concerned that they are undermining Biden's message in Glasgow even before he arrives.

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, who met with Biden recently, said lawmakers could not send the president to the gathering without a robust climate plan in hand.

"The Europeans are going to have a plan ... and the Chinese are going to have a plan," said Khanna, a Democrat from California. "We need to have ... a strong plan to give the president the leadership, the opportunity that he deserves."

Biden had hoped for a warm welcome at the U.N. climate talks, known as COP26, having promised to make climate action a cornerstone of his administration after Donald Trump dismissed the need for action on climate change.

But he has struggled to get key legislation through Congress - particularly his infrastructure bill and broader social spending legislation.

Now Democratic leaders are eyeing the president's overseas trip as an informal deadline to iron out a deal.

Biden is slated to leave Thursday for Italy, before heading to the UK next week.

Democrats want to ensure that major climate provisions like clean energy tax incentives are included as part of tandem infrastructure and social spending packages they have been working on since at least the summer.

But U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has expressed opposition to a centerpiece of Biden's climate agenda: a $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) to incentivize utility companies to transition to renewable energy.

In a chamber split 50-50 between the two parties, just one Democrat can effectively block action if Republicans remain unified in opposition.

Despite the focus on the COP26 deadline, Whitehouse said muscling through legislation that is inadequate to address the task at hand is arguably worse than doing nothing.

"The best solution is something good and strong before COP – second-best is something good and strong after COP," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"(Worse) is something crappy to take into COP and try to sell. And (the) worst-case scenario is just the wheels are off and there's nothing that's going to get done."

'URGENCY'

House Democrats are eyeing a vote as soon as this week on a $1 trillion-plus infrastructure package the U.S. Senate passed in August that includes some climate provisions, like $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations.

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat and former clean energy company executive, said there is "massive urgency" for action ahead of COP26.

But more liberal House members have said they cannot support the infrastructure bill without a clear agreement on a separate package that would also include money for priorities like paid leave and child care.

Casten said the Senate-approved infrastructure package was a "rounding error" when it comes to climate provisions.

"If you care about climate, if you want to be able to tell the world that we deserve to be sitting at the big kids' table, you have to do a lot more than (that)," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Under current policy as of May 2021, with no new action the U.S. was on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17-25% below 2005 levels by 2030, according to analysis released last week by the Rhodium Group, a research firm.

That is well short of Biden's target to cut emissions by 50-52% in that time frame to meet U.S. commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius and ideally 1.5C.

Hitting Biden's target would be made more difficult if Congress fails to pass key climate provisions lawmakers are eyeing, the Rhodium Group analysis found.

"I want the United States to be playing a leadership role," Casten said. "I know President Biden wants us to be there. I know that the leadership of the House wants us to be there."

PRESSURE IS ON

As one of his first acts in office, Biden took action to re-join the Paris Agreement.

The White House said scaling back the climate provisions in his legislative agenda will not undermine the president's message in Glasgow, given the strong signals he has sent on the issue.

The president will use "every tool at his disposal" to advance his climate priorities, said spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre, pointing to other efforts like promoting electric cars and renewable energy sources.

Biden could also take additional executive actions either before, during, or after COP26 – potentially on methane emissions, said Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, an advocacy group.

"I think that there is pressure," Raad said. "I think that folks do not want Joe Biden to show up empty-handed."

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said the United States - the world's second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China - cannot head into the conference without clear evidence of action.

"You cannot preach temperance from a bar stool," he said. "You cannot tell the rest of the world what to do if you, as a country, are not doing it yourselves."

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(Reporting by David Sherfinski. Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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