Kathriona Devereux: Joe Biden needs to keep full steam ahead to fulfil climate promise

There are nine years left to cut emissions drastically and climate meetings and pledges are only the first steps, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: Joe Biden needs to keep full steam ahead to fulfil climate promise

President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

FOR the past few weeks, I’ve been busy organising documentary shoots in New York for an upcoming RTÉ series.

In normal times, we would have flown the Irish director and cameraman to New York to film it, but because of Covid we have to hire local crew and shoot the whole thing remotely via Zoom. Good for our carbon footprints — no transatlantic flights — but bad for our blood pressure — the five hour time difference is a killer and Zoom cannot replace the human connection.

While liaising with participants and booking people for shoots it’s been interesting to hear the different ways New York city is managing Covid. They have neighbourhood drop in test centres dotted around the city, many of the kids in public schools are tested weekly and the most striking fact is that almost everyone I’ve spoken to who is over-18 has been vaccinated.

The Americans are halting the Covid-19 pandemic one quickly administered vaccine at a time. 216 million doses have been given with 26.7% of the 328 million population fully vaccinated. In New York State 30% of people are fully vaccinated.

Their express vaccine rollout is pulling the emergency brakes on Trump’s runaway train crash mishandling of the Covid crisis. Many are crediting “Amtrak Joe” or President Biden to you and me. His nickname, after the US railway company Amtrak, is reportedly because as a Senator he commuted by train everyday from Delaware to Washington DC.

After the tragic death of his first wife he wanted to be home at night for his kids so used public transport to make the 1.5 trip. He’s a big fan of the train and has written about how important the US rail network is for decarbonising transport and getting Americans out of their cars and out of planes.

Likely to serve just one term given his age Joe Biden appears to be an energetic man on a mission. 

The vaccine rollout is just one job on his ‘to do’ list. The next thing he wants to pull the brakes on are carbon emissions. He sees tackling climate change as the key to economic prosperity and a healthy planet. Last week at a virtual climate summit he committed the United States to halving its carbon emissions by the end of this decade.

He believes that by investing in renewables and green technology he can re-build the post-pandemic US economy into one that’s more prosperous, fairer, cleaner and healthier while securing the future of his grandchildren. In his address to other world leaders he said scientists tell us this is the decisive decade where we must make big changes to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.

The virtual climate summit comes ahead of the next big climate meeting in November.

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, will be held in Glasgow and will aim to get countries to revisit their pledges and commitments in the Paris Agreement and sign up to more aggressive emission reductions. Speaking at the virtual climate summit last week U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry said that if the world did everything pledged under the Paris Agreement average global temperatures would still rise by 4 degrees. So the climate agreements and the science don’t square off and polluting countries need to pick up the pace of decarbonisation.

Many countries have already failed to fulfil their Paris Agreement commitments, it will be tough job to get them to sign up to bigger cuts.

While some were lauding Biden for his ambitious climate announcements, others such as climate activist Greta Thunberg were warning about the gap between promises and actions. Despite the Paris Agreement and its predecessors the trajectory of global emissions has continued upwards. The International Energy Agency warns that there might be a surge in emissions in 2021 in the economic bounceback after the pandemic.

The US is the world’s second biggest emitter after China, responsible for 15% of the world’s emissions, so Biden and his climate colleague Kerry are going to be busy in the run up to Glasgow trying to convince the world’s big polluters to also pull the brakes and change their carbon emitting ways.

There are nine years left to cut emissions drastically and climate meetings and pledges are only the first steps. Joe needs to keep full steam ahead to reach his climate action destination.

In Ireland Eamon Ryan presented the Climate Bill to Dáil Eireann. The bill has a similar goal to Biden’s pledge. A 51% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. Rural TDs heckled him accusing him of “hoodwinking” the people of rural Ireland. Farmers are worried what climate action will mean for their livelihoods.

A draft report of Ireland’s agrifood strategy to 2030 was also published last week. It indicated the agricultural sector is only committing to a 10% reduction in greenhouse gases despite being responsible for approx 33% of all of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. That means other sectors of society such as transport and heating are going to have to pick up the slack. Continued growth and expansion in a sector that is responsible for a third of Ireland’s emissions seems incompatible with Ireland’s climate action ambitions.

For Eamon Ryan and his colleagues reconciling farming practices and emission targets will be key to stopping climate action plans coming off the rails.

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