Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election offers new hope in the fight against climate change, both within U.S. borders and around the globe. During his first speech as president-elect, Biden committed to restore the United States’ standing in the world. And all signs suggest that tackling the growing climate crisis — and collaborating with other countries to do so — will be among his administration’s chief priorities.

When he is sworn into office in January, President Biden will be well aware that the contours of international climate diplomacy have significantly shifted since he last served in the White House. This year, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, countries around the world are stepping up on climate action. The EU is on track to enhance its 2030 emissions-reduction target under the Paris Climate Agreement, while developing countries such as Chile, Rwanda and Jamaica already committed to ramp up their efforts. China, Japan and South Korea all recently made historic commitments to reach net-zero emissions.

Countries are taking these steps not only to prevent the growing threats of drought, flooding, sea level rise, forest fire and other effects of climate change, but also to reap the clear economic and social benefits of climate action. Newly installed renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel power in most of the world, while electric vehicles and battery storage are quickly gaining pace, rapidly changing the terrain for the power and transport sectors.

These shifts, coupled with far greater clarity from scientists about the destructive effects of global warming, mean that President Biden will have only a short honeymoon period to catch up if he wants to stand arm-in-arm with global leaders.

The first step will be rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, as Biden has promised to do on his first day in office. But given the damage done over the past four years, the Biden administration will also meet some skepticism about the country’s ability to deliver ambitious climate action. To rebuild trust with the international community and once again play a clear leadership role, the Biden administration must reengage in climate action with clarity, determination and humility.

How Can Biden Reclaim US Role as a Leader on Climate Action?

Here are three key steps the Biden administration will need to take if it is to reestablish the United States as a global leader in the fight against climate change:

1. Submit a robust national climate commitment (NDC) ahead of the COP26 UN climate summit.

The next United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. Well before then, it will be critical for the Biden administration to demonstrate to the world that the United States is serious about taking climate action at home. This means setting a bold 2030 emissions-reduction target as part of a new commitment under the Paris Agreement (known as a nationally determined contribution, or NDC).

The NDC should put the country on course to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, a goal Biden has pledged to adopt. In designing its new NDC, the Biden administration will have to put forward a target that is as ambitious as possible while also inspiring confidence that the United States can fulfill that pledge.

WRI recommends the United States commit to reduce emissions 45-50% below 2005 levels by 2030. The 2019 Accelerating America’s Pledge report from WRI and other organizations found that expanded action by cities, states and businesses alone could potentially reduce emissions 37% below 2005 levels by 2030. With significant renewed leadership at the federal level, a 45-50% emissions-reduction target becomes achievable.

Pursuing this target will enable the United States to take advantage of the significant economic benefits and job opportunities ambitious climate action can bring and would build on progress from U.S. states, cities and businesses.

2. Deliver financial support and align financial flows with the Paris Climate Agreement.

The Biden administration needs to increase its financial support for climate solutions in developing countries if it is to regain its place as a leader on the international stage. Such overseas climate funding is important to help developing countries cut emissions and adapt to increasingly severe climate impacts. It also brings economic and security benefits for the United States by boosting demand for clean tech exports and addressing some of the root causes of national security threats. And financing for well-designed climate action can help create more stable economies around the world and achieve Sustainable Development Goals on employment, energy access and inequality.

Stepping up climate finance includes re-establishing financing for the Green Climate Fund, as Biden has promised to do, starting with the $2 billion outstanding from what the United States pledged in 2014. Last year, other developed countries made a new round of pledges to the GCF, with many doubling their contributions; countries will expect the Biden administration to match this level of effort in its next pledge.

In addition, the Biden administration should consider becoming a contributor to the Adaptation Fund, which finances small-scale adaptation projects, and increase its funding for the Global Environment Facility, which funds a wide range of environmental projects. The incoming administration should also increase bilateral support for climate action in developing countries, especially for adaptation and resilience.

The Biden administration will also have to ensure that public and private finance more broadly are aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement — and don’t prop up fossil fuel infrastructure that is no longer competitive.

Biden promised to re-orient U.S. development institutions toward advancing the clean energy transformation. We expect that this will include ensuring that the U.S. Development Finance Corporation and the U.S. Export-Import Bank phase out financing for fossil fuels and other high-emissions activities, while ramping up finance for climate action.

The United States should encourage multilateral development banks to accelerate efforts to align their portfolios with the Paris Climate Agreement, including commitments to phase out fossil fuel finance (for institutions that have yet to do so).

Likewise, the new administration should work to ensure the International Monetary Fund builds on existing steps it has taken to further incorporate climate change risks into its macroeconomic assessments. Paris alignment is also critical for private sector finance, including through mandatory climate risk reporting for banks, investors and companies.  

Finally, Biden has made it clear that he will challenge China’s financing for coal and other fossil fuel infrastructure abroad through the Belt and Road Initiative. Biden must not forget that in addition to China, some close U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea are still financing coal plants abroad, and they need to change course. The administration could take steps to address this challenge by developing new approaches to increase overseas finance for clean infrastructure, potentially in partnership with other countries.

3. Forge relationships with other countries to tackle climate change.

Given the threats climate change poses to the global economy and security, the Biden administration should treat it as a core foreign policy issue. Biden has embraced this idea; the question is how he will implement it.

Biden has already pledged to bring the leaders of major emitters together around climate action, including a summit early in his administration. As president, Biden can use heads-of-state meetings — such as the G7, G20, North American Leadership Summit and APEC — to advance international cooperation on climate change. There are also important opportunities in the Arctic Council and other fora to advance global cooperation on critical issues such as curbing methane emissions, which have a global warming potential more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide. 

Critically, the United States will once again be able to engage constructively in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and help advance the next stages for implementing the Paris Agreement. This includes finalizing outstanding elements of the Paris Rulebook and initiating the Global Stocktake process to assess where the world stands on reducing emissions. To do so, the Biden administration should work closely with the UK, which serves as the presidency of COP26 next year, along with other countries.

Leveraging bilateral relationships — both with developed and developing countries — will also be key to moving the international climate agenda forward. The Biden administration should collaborate closely with the EU to advance global cooperation and work together with and raise expectations for other advanced economies such as Japan, South Korea and Canada, particularly around ambitious near-term climate commitments.

It will also need to support stronger climate action in developing countries. Diplomatic engagement with India, Indonesia and Brazil will be key, building on past initiatives like the Partnership for Advancing Clean Energy (PACE) or putting in place strategies to reduce deforestation and foster nature-based solutions. The administration should also build strong ties with vulnerable developing countries — including small island states and least developed countries – that are suffering the worst impacts of climate change and often have limited financial resources to properly adapt.

Finally, the U.S. relationship with China is an especially critical one, but considerably more complicated and fraught than it was at the conclusion of the Obama administration. Climate change could provide the greatest opportunity for collaboration between the two countries. The recent announcement by President Xi that China would achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 is a gamechanger, though it must be accompanied by concrete movement to shift China’s emissions trajectory, particularly in the country’s NDC and 14th Five Year Plan. If the world is to have any chance of adequately addressing the threat of climate change, there is no question that the world’s two largest emitters will have to work together. 

Re-establishing a Leadership Role for the US in International Climate Policy

The Trump administration tarnished the reputation of the United States on the international stage and eroded trust in climate diplomacy. It will take time for the Biden administration to rebuild those damaged relationships. But with concerted focus, the United States can re-establish itself as a climate leader and help propel the global community to address the climate crisis with the ambition it demands.