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Possibilities for America's Global Climate Leadership
at Earth Day Summit

John Kirton, Director, G7 and G20 Research Groups
April 20, 2021

On March 26, 2021, U.S. president Joe Biden formally announced that he would hold a "Leaders Summit on Climate" on April 22–23 (White House 2021). This move was Biden's first full step in providing proactive American global leadership. He was mounting a major innovative initiative, rather than merely reversing what Trump had done and was thus returning the United States to where Joe Biden and President Barack Obama had left the world when they left office almost half a decade ago. Biden's "Earth Day" summit would "underscore the urgency — and the economic benefits — of stronger climate action." It would also be "a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow," seeking to "catalyze efforts" to keep with reach the goal of limiting global warming to under 1.5°C from preindustrial times. It would "also highlight examples of how enhanced climate ambition will create good paying jobs, advance innovative technologies, and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts."

In its March 26 announcement, the United States promised that before the summit it would announce "an ambitious 2030 emissions target as its new Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement." Biden urged his invited leaders to use the summit to do so too. He did not make doing so a condition of receiving an invitation, as a recent climate summit had.

To select the invitees, he first reconvened the U.S.-led Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), which Republican president George W. Bush had created on May 31, 2007, with its first meeting held in Washington D.C. on September 27–28 that year. Its 17 members now produce about 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions and gross domestic product. Biden added countries showing strong climate leadership, the most vulnerable to climate impacts or "charting innovative pathways to a net zero economy" (White House 2021). He included "a small number of business and civil society leaders."

The summit sought to encourage all invited leaders to improve their very inadequate nationally determined contributions (NDCs) well before the Glasgow Summit in November. It was especially important as the UN preparatory process had stalled due to the absence of in-person meetings. The United States is expected to announce a new, more ambitious NDC before or at the summit, to encourage others to follow.

The Debate

The summit's prospects and performance have aroused a debate among several schools of thought. The first school sees a welcome start in many ways (Kirton 2021). It builds on the results of the special G7 Virtual Summit on February 19 and the Quadrilateral Summit on March 12, and produces momentum for G7's Cornwall Summit in June and the G20's Rome Summit in October (Beament 2021). Biden is not letting the continuing COVID-19 crisis crowd out action on climate change but seeks immediate action in a forum more inclusive than the G20 but more manageable than the universal UN, with its entrenched coalitions and caucus groups that so frustrated President Obama at Copenhagen in 2009 (Obama 2020, 503–16). But missing from the White House announcement were references to health, gender, Indigenous Peoples, invitees from multilateral environmental organizations and adequate attention to nature-based solutions.

The second school sees a U.S.-centred summit theatre. Rachel Kyte thinks it could be "extremely impactful if there is a big centerpiece … the U.S. plan" (Friedman 2021). The third school sees a cooperative China creating summit success. David Sandalow thinks China could and would improve its climate credentials and reduce overall frictions with the U.S. by issuing a stronger emissions cutback commitment and thus making the summit a success (Friedman 2021).

The fourth school sees hopes boosted by a U.S.-China deal announced on April 17 (White and Hook 2021). It declares climate change to be a "crisis" and would "sharply increase the momentum on climate action globally' including at Glasgow, especially as it came amid rising U.S. tensions overall.

The fifth school sees at least a climate finance opportunity. The UK's COP26 coordinator, Alok Sharma (2021), said it has "earmarked [the U.S. Earth Day Summit and others] as opportunities to secure further climate finance pledges from developed countries."

The sixth school sees potential failure, due to other countries' lack of trust in Biden's ability to deliver his own improved cutback plans. Taiya Smith thinks they might treat this as another American fad, while others pointed to Biden's difficulty in getting cooperation from a Congress that his party barely controls (Friedman 2021).

The seventh school saw "far from certain" followership (Gearan et al. 2021). It notes that Biden's is a high-risk summit that will be livestreamed around the world, with no promises in advance from many of the biggest climate polluters that they would commit to more action there. They know that Biden will not be president in 2030 to keep the promises that he will make to deliver on that date, and that his Congressional support is precarious even now. However, the prospect of carbon border adjustments by the United States could induce China and other export-dependent economies to move.


These schools largely do not specify what the Earth Day Summit has to do to qualify as a success, nor what the U.S. and China have to promise on the way to and at the summit to so. Nor do they look beyond the U.S. and China to other consequential countries, such as India, Russia, Brazil and G7 members, to make it a success. They do not consider how well the two earlier MEF summits, whose members are at the core of this Earth Day one, worked and why. They overlook other causes, such as newly soaring COVID-19 cases that could again crowd out action on climate change, even as rapid economic growth and thus emissions in China and the U.S. mean more real action is now required to meet the Paris Agreement goal.

The Thesis

The Earth Day Summit's success depends critically on the size, speed and credibility of the new climate actions that India, China, Russia, Brazil and Japan promise to take in the short and medium term. The long-anticipated U.S. increases are important insofar as they incentivize these other leading climate polluters to act but depend on Congress passing the green components of Biden's $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan. The key actions are ending the financing, development, production and consumption of coal; ending fossil fuel subsidies; reducing methane and HCFCs; curbing air pollution; and enhancing nature-based solutions from forests and peat. Far less important are the many long deadlocked issues in the COP process, which could be left for ministers to address later in the year. A key referent is how much closer the summit can bring the world to the 45% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 2030 that UN Secretary General António Guterres has said is needed to reach the Paris Agreement target (World Meteorological Organization 2021).

A few days before the summit's start, the prospects are promising that it will produce a significant success. Propelling such performance is the inclusion of all MEF and G20 leaders and more from climate-vulnerable countries and pioneers, plus indications from such key players as China, Japan and Canada that they will make new commitments there. Other drivers are the strong support for Biden and climate action among the U.S. public, for the Green Party in Germany, and from the UK and Italy as G7, G20 and COP26 hosts later in the year. The vast foreign policy experience of Biden, his climate envoy John Kerry and their team enables them to find the formula to make all the key players credibly promise enough to make the summit a success. These causes should be sufficient to overcome the constraints of the COVID-19 crisis now escalating in major emitters including India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia and of a divided U.S. Congress that ultimately made the 2008 and 2009 MEFs fail to fulfill their promise at the UN's climate summits at Copenhagen in 2009 and even Paris in 2015.

Plans and Preparations

The reconfiguration of global climate governance, under American leadership for the first time, began on January 20, when Joe Biden was inaugurated as president. He immediately brought his country back into the Paris Agreement. Three weeks later, on March 12, he chaired a new summit of the Quadrilateral Indo-Pacific democratic powers of Japan, India and Australia, which made three commitments on climate change.

In rejoining the Paris Agreement and mounting these new summits, Biden was swiftly fulfilling the promises he repeatedly made in his presidential campaign. They were backed by a succession of domestic executive orders to repeal the many anti-environmental moves Trump made, and by creating much stronger executive team for climate action, led by former secretary of state John Kerry as his special envoy with cabinet rank.

To prepare the summit, Kerry toured Europe and made contact with his Chinese counterpart. In the first few months of 2021 he made six overseas visits and many conference calls. He secured early indications of increased NDCs from Canada's Justin Trudeau, whose government announced on April 19 that Canada would raise its target for reducing emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels by 36%, rather than the 30% it had long had. Indications of substantially improved medium-term targets came from Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan. Hesitant, coal-friendly Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia could be moved by Biden promising to help him withstand a threatening China.

The most important signal of progress came on April 17, in the "U.S.-China Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis" (U.S. Department of State 2021). Its title shows that the two world's leading economic powers and climate polluters have agreed on the critical fact that climate change constitutes a crisis, and implicitly requires major action now. It also promised "concrete actions in the 2020s" rather than waiting three or more decades to 2050 or 2060 for lofty targets to be met. Yet it contained no details about what specific targets and timetables the United States or China would actually adopt.

Lead-Up Promises

In the lead-up to the summit, several key countries announced improved climate actions and NDCs. The UK had already raised a 68% cut from 1990 levels by 2030 and signalled it would got to 78% by 2035 by the COP26 in Glasgow, which it will co-chair in November (Harvey 2021). It did so on April 20, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced he will legislate by the end of June the "world's most ambitious climate change, cutting emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels" (UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2021). It will include aviation and shipping emissions for the first time and "bring the UK more than three quarters of the way to net zero by 2050." Johnson is set to speak in the opening session of the Leaders' Summit on Climate, urging others to follow the UK in "reducing emissions by 2030 to align with net zero."

The European Union has promised a 55% cut. Thus Biden's America will be following the UK as the G7 and UN host in 2021 and the EU, too, but be leading the rest of the world, which has not yet followed the US-UK lead.

In Canada, in the budget announced on April 19, Trudeau raised the emissions reduction target to 36% below 2005 levels by 2030 (Radwanski 2021). He signalled more would come at the Earth Day Summit itself. The budget added CA$5 billion to the CA$3 billion allocated in December to the New Zero Accelerator to transform large-emitting sectors, and gave CA$4.2 billion to nature-based solutions, among other measures.

Japan, which submitted an NDC in 2020 that was the same as five years before, had promised a substantial improvement (Harvey 2021).

By April 20, Joe Biden was reportedly planning to announce U.S. cutbacks of up to 50%, or about double the 26%–28% cuts the Obama administration had pledged for the Paris Agreement of 2015.

The still reluctant and resistant include China, India, Russia, Korea, Indonesia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Australia; and Mexico has recently reduced its promises made before (Harvey 2021). Yet some feel that China, with an export-dependent economy, could be induced to act by the EU's threat of imposing border carbon adjustment, if the U.S. adds its support (Sandbu 2021).

Prospective Results

Just before the summit, there are promising prospects for its performance. At the summit many leaders will announce improved NDCs that together will make a solid contribution to reducing net emissions. They will also pledge more climate finance, helping close the gap between current levels and their overdue promise to provide $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020. The key referent is how much they will generate the 45% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 2030 needed to reach the Paris Agreement target.

To do so through a strong performance, the participants need to take several specific steps.

The first is for the leaders of all 40 invited countries to attend the summit. Four days before the summit started, Xi Jinping had not confirmed his participation (Kim 2021). It is likely that he would show up, at least briefly, as the virtual format allows him to do this at little cost.

The second step is recognizing in their communiqué the urgency and existential nature of the climate crisis, that controlling it is necessary for economic growth and human health, that they are each responsible and that they must take immediate action to meet the Paris targets. Here they need to set aside their constraining concerns with respective historic contributions since the start of the industrial revolution and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, and focus on the contributions and capacities from the present to each year until 2030.

The third step is to have all major polluters announce improved NDCs that represent their fair share of reaching the Paris Agreement targets, with short-term timelines of one year, by 2025 or 2030. Four contributions that could be done within a year are halting financing for coal production, transportation or use anywhere in the world; ending fossil fuel subsidies, as the G20 has promised to do since September 2009; reaching the overdue target of giving developing countries $100 billion a year; and starting to grow at least one trillion trees and stopping the loss of peat and rainforests anywhere in the world.

The fourth step is making commitments that are likely to be complied with. Based on what supports compliance with climate change commitments made at G7 and G20 summits, such instruments could include creating "G40" ministerial and official-level institutions to follow up; calling for annual COP summits rather than just one every five years; calling for the G7, BRICS and G20 summits to act in specific ways; issuing a long communiqué; and making commitments that use highly binding language and refer to past MEFs, the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the private sector, and that include a one-year timetable, quantified targets and synergistic references to the economy, markets and growth, natural disasters, energy and technology (Warren 2021). They should also call another G40 summit and make it an annual event. They give nature-based solutions, Indigenous peoples and health co-benefits a far greater place than G7, G20 and MEF summits have done to date.

Here the UK is likely to comply with the more ambitious cutback commitments it made on April 20. It stands first in the G20 in complying with the summit's climate change commitments, with its 87% average followed by Germany's 85%, the EU's 83%, and Canada's 81%, while the U.S. has 76%, India 68%, China 64% and 57%. At home, "the over-achieved against its first and second Carbon Budgets and is on track to outperform the third Carbon Budget which ends in 2022 … with the UK bringing emissions down 44% overall between 1990 and 2019" (UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2021).

U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken (2021) has said the United States will follow up with a strong message in May to the G7, whose members produced one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in May, with Russia, Canada and some EU members there.

The fifth step was creating the array of G40 institutions identified above and having the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and all multilateral development banks make climate action their central mission and use their full array of instruments to meet the G40's annual targets and the Paris Agreement's goals. They have only begun to take small, selective steps in this direction (Rappeport 2021).


Several forces are propelling the promising prospects that the Earth Day Summit leaders will take some of these actions.

Shock-Activated Vulnerability

Shock-activated vulnerability is high. The U.S.-China declaration on April 17 recognized climate change as a "crisis." In the elite media, in the 31 days between the Quadrilateral Summit on March 12 and April 19, the front page of the Financial Times included climate stories on 10 days or 32%, compared to 97% for health, 74% for the economy, 42% for digitalization and 16% for democracy. On April 19 it headlined the story of the U.S.-China bilateral deal. Physical climate shocks continued, led by fresh memories of the deadly Arctic storm in February that froze the energy grid and much else in Texas and damaged many other U.S. states (see Appendix A).

Recent scientific reports offer stark results. On April 19, the World Meteorological Organization, (2021) issued an updated State of the Global Climate Report. It confirmed that 2020 was one of the three hottest years ever, and that the six years between 2015 and 2021 were the hottest ones ever. In 2020 concentration levels of greenhouse gas emissions rose to a new high of 410 parts per million (ppm) and were on track to hit 414 ppm in 2021. New highs in ocean heat came in 2019 and in sea level rise in 2020, the latter at a rising rate as the ice in the Arctic and Antarctica melted, split and broke off at increasing speeds. The report's summary of extreme weather events in 2020 included those in the U.S., China, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Korea, Australia, France, the UK and Canada.

Multilateral Organizational Failure

Multilateral organizational failure remains high. Preparations for COP26 have been delayed as some members refuse to engage in them in the prolonged virtual form. The UN reported that if all members fully implemented their existing NDCs, it would produce only 1% of the progress needed to reach the Paris Agreement goal.

Predominant Equalizing Capabilities

The predominant equalizing capability of summit participants is high. They produce more than 80% of the world's gross domestic product and greenhouse gas emissions. Both China and the United States led all other summit participants in the levels and increases in their economies and ensuing emissions in the first quarter of 2021.

Moreover, short-term shifts in exchange rates have increased the internal economic equalization and thus the prospects for success. On April 19 the U.S. dollar declined to a six-week low, as the currencies of the climate-committed UK, euro area and other developed countries rose. However, India's rupee, which rose 1% from January to March, dropped 3% since the start of April, as its COVID-19 cases and deaths soar to new peaks (Lockett and Parkin 2021).

Converging Characteristics

Converging democratic characteristics and environmental performance remain high, much as they have for a year. Democratic retreats in China over Hong Kong and in Russia with the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny have been offset by advances in the U.S. with Donald Trump no long president and his followers' violent assault on the U.S. Congress fading from view.

Domestic Political Cohesion

Domestic political cohesion in key participants is high. In the U.S., Biden as host is fully committed to climate action, and has extensive international experience as a senator and as Obama's vice-president for eight years. He is starting his four-year term as president, with his Democratic Party narrowly controlling both Congressional chambers and helping him have strong approval ratings during his first 90 days in office.

In China, Xi Jinping has over half a decade of G20 and BRICS summit experience, will be in power for many more years, and has complete control of his government and much of its economy as well. To preserve social stability, he knows he must respond to his citizens' concerns about the growing ecological vulnerability that his aging population suffers from.

Canada is critical, as a country adjacent to the United States and highly integrated economically and ecologically with it, and as a major oil and gas producer whose large Arctic expanse gives it very high per capita emissions. Trudeau, elected in 2015 with a majority government, has attended seven G20 summits. His Liberal Party now has only a minority government following its re-election in 2019, and its opposition Conservative Party has just adopted carbon pricing as a policy for the first time. Polls show that Trudeau's Liberals, with a 7% lead over the Conservatives, would probably win a majority if an election were held now. The April 19 budget included major spending for climate-controlling instruments, similar to and compatible with that in Biden's own American Jobs Plan.

In the UK, domestic support is high. Conservative Party prime minister Boris Johnson is a veteran of several G7 and G20 summits, is host of the 2021 G7 summit and co-host of COP26, has a majority government, and does not face an election until 2024. A recent Opinium poll found 58% support for making international climate agreements legally enforceable, including 47% of Conservative, 73% of Labor and 68% voters of Liberal Democratic voters (Stone 2021).

Club at the Hub

As the club at the hub of an expanding network of global climate summit governance, the Earth Day Summit's position is substantial. To be sure, it is the first gathering of this large group of 40 countries, whose leaders have not all yet confirmed they would attend, even though the virtual format eliminates most transaction costs.

But both Biden and Xi value plurilateral summitry. Both lead countries that pioneered the MEF summits in 2008 and 2009, the latter attended by Obama a few months after Biden took office as his vice-president.

The MEF formula has proven its worth (Happaerts 2015; Kirton and Kokotsis 2015, 13–14). It first met at the ministerial level in Washington DC on September 27–28, 2007 (Kirton 2021). Its first summit took place on July 9, 2008, as part of the G8's summit in Hokkaido, Japan, and included 17 leaders, all from G20 countries but without Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Argentina. They made 30 commitments. Two assessed for compliance averaged an adequate 67%, although U.S. compliance was only 50%. Together the G8 and MEF at Hokkaido made 54 climate commitments, and the five commitments assessed for compliance averaged a significant 77%.

The second MEF summit, announced by Obama on March 28, 2009, was held as part of the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on July 9, 2009. Leaders from the same 17 countries came and made nine commitments, while the G8 alone made 33 climate ones. Compliance with the G8's commitments averaged a strong 82%. The global financial crisis raging then did not crowd out the MEF's significant climate performance.

The Earth Day Summit is the first in which both Biden and Xi will participate, should the Chinese president attend. They will otherwise have to wait until the G20 in Rome on October 30-31. The Earth Day Summit extends the network of global summit governance radiating outward, by doubling the number of participating countries from 20 to 40 and according equality to all.

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Beament, Emily (2021). "G20 World Leaders to Take Part in Virtual Summit as US Seeks Climate Action." Press Association, April 18.

Blinken, Anthony (2021). "Tackling the Crisis and Seizing the Opportunity: America's Global Climate Leadership." Speech to the Philip Merrill Environmental Center, Annapolis, Maryand, U.S. Department of State, April 19.

Friedman, Lisa (2021). "Biden Wants Leaders to Make Climate Commitments for Earth Day." New York Times, April 13.

Gearan, Anne, Brady Dennis and Michael Birnbaum (2021). "Biden Will Hold a Big Climate Summit This Week to Reestablish U.S. Leadership. Not Everyone May Follow." Washington Post, April 20.

Happaerts, Sander (2015). "Rising Powers in Global Climate Governance: Negotiating inside and Outside the UNFCCC." In Rising Powers and Multilateral Institutions, Dries Lesage and Thijs Van de Graaf, eds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 317–42.

Harvey, Fiona (2021). "Joe Biden to Reveal US Emissions Pledge in Key Climate Crisis Moment." Guardian, April 19.

Kim, Hyung-Jin (2021). "U.S., China to Co-Operate on Climate Crisis." Globe and Mail, April 19, p. B7.

Kirton, John (2021). "Promising Prospects for President Biden's 2021 Climate Summit." G7 Research Group, March 27.

Kirton, John and Ella Kokotsis (2015). The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership. Farnham: Ashgate.

Lockett, Hudson and Benjamin Parkin (2021). "Rupee Retreats as New Covid Wave Threatens India's Economic Recovery." Financial Times, April 20, p. 10.

Obama, Barack (2020). A Promised Land. New York: Crown Publishers.

Radwanski, Adam (2021). "Federal Budget 2021: With Their Budget's Green-Recovery Plans, the Liberals Place a Big Bet on Large Industry." Globe and Mail, April 19.

Rappeport, Alan (2021). "Out of Trump's Shadow, World Bank President Embraces Climate Fight." New York Times, April 9.

Sandbu, Martin (2021). "Time Is Ripe for the EU to Start a Carbon Club." Financial Times, March 31, p. 17.

Sharma, Alok (2021). "We Must Help Poorer Countries Tackle Climate Change." Financial Times, April 19, p. 17.

Stone, Jon (2021). "Climate Experts Urge Boris Johnson to Make International Emissions Agreements Legally Binding in Uk." Independent, April 19.

United Kingdom. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2021). "UK Enshrines New Target in Law to Slash Emissions by 78% by 2035." Press release, April 20.

United States. Department of State (2021). "U.S.-China Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis." April 17.

Warren, Brittaney (2021). "Improving G7 Performance on Climate Change." G7 Research Group, April 12.

White, Edward and Leslie Hook (2021). "US-China Climate Pledge Boosts Hopes for Global Emissions Deal." Financial Times, April 19, p. 1.

White House (2021). "President Biden Invites 40 World Leaders to Leaders Summit on Climate." March 26.

World Meteorological Organization (2021). "Climate Change Indicators and Impacts Worsened in 2020." Press release no. 19042021, Geneva, April 19.

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Appendix A: Major Climate and Ecological Shocks 2021

January 10

Spain's worst snowstorm (Filomena) since 1980s in Madrid, 4 dead

January 15

Indonesian earthquake kills at least 105 people in West Sulawesi Province

February 14

Himalayan glacier's collapse caused by rising temperatures and deforestation kills 52

February 16

Record cold and snow throughout lower 48 U.S. states kills many, causes blackouts, delays COVID vaccinations and sends energy prices to new highs

February 16

Snow smothers Athens, Greece

February 20

Oil spill on Israel's Mediterranean coasts forces it to close its beaches

March 20

Earthquake in seabed off north Japan causes minor injuries, is felt in Tokyo, and awakens memories of the Fukushima disaster on March 11, 2011, just after its tenth anniversary

March 21

Record floods in New South Wales, Australia, force evacuations

April 4

Tropical Cyclone Seroja kills at least 165 in Indonesia

April 10

Indonesia earthquake kills six in Java

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