COP27 climate talks: Biden’s bold promises on U.S. emissions

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COP27 climate talks: Biden’s bold promises on U.S. emissions

This special COP27 briefing originally appeared on Nov. 11 in our flagship daily newsletter, Grid Today. Sign up for it here to get the context and consequences of the news in your inbox each day.


Greetings from Sharm el-Sheikh, where I have arrived to cover the conclusion of the talks. My feeling that the city is a somewhat odd choice for a COP host has not yet been dispelled — Sharm el-Sheikh sits in an otherwise empty stretch of desert on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, with the shockingly turquoise Red Sea to the southeast and a line of rust-brown mountains cutting it off from the rest of the peninsula to the north. Last year in Glasgow, next year in Dubai and this year in a city whose population of 73,000 might barely double the COP’s attendance.

Biden’s bold promises

I arrived Friday a few hours before President Joe Biden was scheduled to speak, an event buttressed by a well-received EPA announcement that it will strengthen a 2021 rule to reduce methane emissions. The agency’s plan includes a number of new provisions aimed at cutting back the release of the greenhouse gas that warms the planet 80 times as effectively as carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

The EPA rule would require better monitoring of oil and gas wells, which are significant sources of methane leaks; increase the use of remote sensing techniques to find those leaks; require better control and operation of natural gas flaring; and a number of other provisions.

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Curbing methane emissions is critical for limiting near-term warming, given the gas’s high but short-lived potency (as compared to CO2, which can remain aloft for centuries). In other good news on this front, as Grid’s China Reporter Lili Pike wrote yesterday, the world’s biggest emitter has also now established a plan to start curbing its methane emissions.

Biden touted the U.S. methane rule in his speech at the COP, saying the policy will act in concert with pieces of the landmark Inflation Reduction Act to help move the U.S. toward its emissions target of 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. In fact, he said the country is now on track for such a target — not a sentiment experts and models seem to share, though it is certainly getting closer. When the IRA passed, modeling suggested it could get the country to around 40 to 42 percent below 2005 levels; the methane rule could likely add another percent to that.

Biden, though, is starting to make more forceful promises on the topic: “The U.S. will meet our emissions target by 2030.”

Decarbonization day

Friday was “Decarbonization Day” at COP27, where a variety of events focused on the challenges inherent to reducing emissions from a few tough sectors, including steel and cement production, among others. Some of these sectors are particularly tricky given the chemistry involved. They are often invoked as some of the metaphorical “last mile” of the world’s journey toward net-zero.

As with most of the theme days at any COP, this one saw the release of several lofty statements and coalition promises. In one, countries representing over half of the global GDP launched a collection of 25 actions aimed at decarbonizing five sectors (power, road transport, steel, hydrogen and agriculture). By its nature, this sort of high-level initiative is somewhat short on the details of implementation. As COP26 president and U.K. Member of Parliament Alok Sharma said in a statement, “Now, it is vital for all to deliver and demonstrate real progress as we move forward.”

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The industries themselves are also getting in on the action. A group called the Alliance for Industry Decarbonization, which officially launched in September, held its first official meeting here in Egypt; the group is composed of 28 companies, and though these initial talks appeared to do little more than outline some core goals and focus areas, many experts and pundits have said that reaching climate targets is very difficult without more robust participation of industry.

“The heavy industries are responsible for a considerable share of the total carbon dioxide emissions in the world today,” said Alliance co-chair and CEO of Tata Steel T.V. Narendran. Other members include Siemens Energy, EDF Renewables, Sable Chemicals and more.

Still, there is a whiff of “classic COP” to these sorts of alliances and announcements, with good speeches and lofty ambitions but not necessarily a ton of follow-up. It was only a few days ago that the U.N. secretary-general warned of the dangers of corporate greenwashing. One moving target for all COP attendees, after so many years of stagnation, is to convince the world the promises really will come to pass.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.