On Climate, Leadership Abroad Begins at Home

President Biden can appeal to world leaders using the power of example—rapidly cutting emissions while driving the durable, broad-based recovery we need.

Credit: Anatoliy Gleb/iStock

President Biden can appeal to world leaders using the power of example—rapidly cutting emissions while driving the durable, broad-based recovery we need.


President Biden’s pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 50 and 52 percent by 2030 weds climate action to equitable recovery at home and U.S. leadership abroad.

After years of U.S. backsliding, Biden has aligned national policy with the minimum that the science demands, which is exactly what the economy needs and precisely what the global community is counting on the country to provide. It’s a lot to promise, but can we pull it off?

The answer is yes, we can, and in a way that gets our economy humming again, makes our communities healthier, and our society more equitable.

In his first official act on the global stage, Biden will host his counterparts from China, India, Germany, and three dozen other nations on Thursday for a virtual Earth Day leaders’ summit on climate. It’s been more than five years since a president marshaled U.S. climate diplomacy to address the central environmental challenge of our time, helping to gather the nations of the world around the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord. The Trump era, of course, saw U.S. participation in the agreement withdrawn, part of a broader retreat that turned the United States from climate leader to global laggard.

More than marking the United States’ return to the Paris Agreement, the summit is a moment for Biden to appeal to world leaders for deeper engagement, greater cooperation, and more assertive action to confront the widening climate crisis, while we’ve still got time to act.

Leadership abroad, though, begins at home. Leading with the power of example, Biden will pledge to cut this country’s share of the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change between 50 and 52 percent by 2030—compared to the 2005 baseline—so we can stop adding this pollution to the atmosphere altogether by 2050.

That’s what the science tells us we must do, at a minimum, if we’re to avert the worst impacts of rising seas, widening deserts, species collapse, and increasingly devastating wildfires, storms, and floods, as attested to by more than 1,500 leading scientists who support Biden’s pledge.

Since the first Earth Day, in 1970, we’ve burned more coal, oil, and gas, globally, than in all of history up till then, raising the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 30 percent, to its highest level in 3.6 million years. The result has been a widening climate crisis that’s inflicting rising costs and mounting dangers on our families, communities, and countries—and the world.

Carbon pollution accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s climate-warming greenhouses gases. Methane, an even more powerful agent of global warming, makes up another 10 percent. Before the pandemic hit last year, we’d cut the U.S. carbon footprint about 13 percent since 2005, so we’re nearly a quarter of the way toward Biden’s pledge. 

A new NRDC analysis details how we can reach that goal, by, for example, investing in efficiency, so we do more with less energy waste in our workplaces, commercial buildings, and homes; shifting away from fossil fuels to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future; widening our use of electric vehicles, appliances, and equipment; and modernizing our electricity grid and storage system. 


These are central pieces of the American Jobs Plan Biden announced last month in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The key to hitting his 2030 target is for Congress to fully fund these strategic investments, and for the White House to add effective standards to the mix so that we generate 80 percent of our electricity without burning fossil fuels.

We’re halfway there. Last year, wind, solar, hydropower, and nuclear generation provided 40 percent of the nation’s electricity. Of the new U.S. electricity generation capacity we’ll add this year, 81 percent will come from the wind, sun, and utility-scale batteries.

Cleaning up our dirty power plants will also reduce dangerous pollutants that aggravate asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, and other maladies that disproportionately hurt low-income residents and people of color. That will reduce premature deaths by more than 40,000 over the coming decade and deliver health and environmental benefits worth some $150 billion in 2030 alone.

Next, we must speed the shift to electric cars and other zero-emission vehicles so they account for nearly 6 in 10 new car sales and 55 percent of new medium-size and heavy-duty truck sales by 2030. Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes funding to build half a million electric charging stations nationwide, a strategic investment aligned with plans by Ford, General Motors, and other carmakers to dedicate $257 billion to electric car development worldwide by 2030.

Little wonder why those companies joined with Apple, Google, General Electric, and more than 400 other companies and investors to urge Biden to commit to cutting emissions at least 50 percent by 2030. In the wake of the horrific pandemic that’s left 9.7 million people unemployed, the leaders of these companies know there’s no more effective way to get the economy back on its feet than to invest in clean energy.

That work employed nearly 3.4 million Americans before the pandemic, at jobs paying 25 percent more, on average, than the national median. Biden’s plan will create millions more good jobs for electricians, steelworkers, truck drivers, pipe fitters, fabricators, and others in every community in the country.  

Biden has pledged that 40 percent of the benefits of this investment will accrue to low-income neighborhoods and people of color. That means the help will get to the people who pay the heaviest price for climate hazard and harm as part of the larger toll inflicted by generations of environmental injustice

Finally, to cut emissions in half by 2030, we must make sure workers can transition out of fossil fuel jobs with secure pensions intact, health care coverage, extended unemployment benefits, and the training to tap into new opportunities, in the clean energy sector or elsewhere.

Biden’s climate action plan reflects the two-thirds of the country that wants the government to stand up to the climate crisis. It can drive the strong, durable, broad-based recovery we need, make our communities healthier, and our society more equitable. 

Congress must get behind these national priorities and Biden should drive further progress with effective clean energy standards and incentives; he should also lead by example, leveraging his domestic climate agenda to urge other nations to join the United States in cutting greenhouse gases in half by the end of this decade.

Related Blogs