At COP27, Biden Casts America as Climate Leader, While Activists Push Him to Do More

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SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — President Biden appeared before an overflowing United Nations convention on Friday to reclaim America’s role as a leader on climate change and to stress a renewed U.S. commitment to stop the planet from catastrophic warming.

Mr. Biden came to Egypt as the president who muscled through a landmark climate law, one that provides a record $370 billion to accelerate America’s transition away from the fossil fuels that have underpinned its economy for 150 years.

At the summit, known as COP27, he spoke of how he immediately returned the United States to the 2015 Paris climate agreement upon taking office after his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, had withdrawn the country. “I apologize that we ever pulled out of the agreement,” he told the gathering, which comprised diplomats, ministers and representatives of nearly 200 nations.

Mr. Biden listed recent climate disasters that had caused misery and destruction around the globe and said collective action was the only way to face the crisis. He exhorted other nations to follow America’s lead and increase their efforts to make swift and deep cuts to the pollution that is dangerously heating the planet.

“The United States is acting. Everyone has to act,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s a duty and responsibility of global leadership. Countries that are in a position to help should be supporting developing countries so they can make decisive climate decisions.”

“We’re racing forward to do our part to avert the climate hell that the U.N. secretary general so passionately warned about earlier this week,” he said. He reiterated a 2021 pledge, which has so far been unfulfilled, to provide $11.4 billion annually by 2024 to help developing countries address the effects of climate change. That money is part of a pledge made by wealthy nations as part of the 2015 Paris agreement. Last year, Mr. Biden secured just $1 billion toward that goal from Congress.

American progress in advanced batteries, hydrogen and other foundations of a green economy will encourage “a cycle of innovation” that will reduce costs, improve performance and benefit the world. “We’re going to help make the transition to a low-carbon future more affordable for everyone,” he said.

For the first time, Mr. Biden announced, the U.S. government will require domestic oil and gas producers to detect and fix leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps about 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide does in the short run. The fossil fuel industry is the biggest industrial source of methane emissions in the United States; the colorless, odorless gas leaks from pipelines and is often intentionally vented by gas producers. Stopping methane from escaping into the atmosphere is critical to slowing global warming, scientists say.

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a regulation on Friday that it said would eliminate 36 million tons of methane emissions from oil and gas operations by 2035 — more than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from all coal-fired power plants in a single year.

Last year, the United States and Europe led a coalition of more than 100 countries that agreed to cut 30 percent of methane emissions by 2030. Despite that pledge, methane emissions this year are rising faster than ever before, according to a report by the World Meteorological Organization. Mr. Biden urged other nations to make good on their promises.

Some negotiators praised Mr. Biden for his determination to make deep cuts to the pollution generated by the United States, particularly after Mr. Trump spent four years essentially suspending federal efforts to fight climate change. Mr. Biden received sustained applause for saying that if governments can finance coal, they can finance renewable energy. And the crowd gave him a standing ovation at the end of his remarks.

Ayman Elgohary, an Egyptian delegate, said he found Mr. Biden’s explanation of how the new American climate law will help drive down the cost of clean energy “exciting.”

“Joe Biden, in my book, is a genuine climate hero,” former Vice President Al Gore said during an interview at the climate talks on Thursday.

But the summit also showcased something that Mr. Biden and his administration are increasingly discovering — that even as world leaders welcome American re-engagement on the issue, their expectations for U.S. action have swelled.

Ministers and activists from a range of nations, particularly from emerging markets in Asia, Africa and the Americas, have said this week that while they applaud Mr. Biden’s policies to drive down pollution, the United States — which has historically produced the most fossil fuel emissions — owes reparations to poor countries that are being ravaged by climate change but have contributed little to the problem.

Some of the assembled negotiators and environmental activists criticized Mr. Biden ahead of his speech. Protesters briefly interrupted it.

“Joe Biden comes to COP27 and makes new promises, but his old promises have not even been fulfilled,” said Mohamed Adow, the founder of Power Shift Africa, an environmental group, after Mr. Biden gave his remarks. “He is like a salesman selling goods with endless small print.”

Amara Nwuneli, a 15-year old activist from Lagos, Nigeria, said she thought Mr. Biden’s speech was disappointing. “He talked about the things America accomplished, but he made it feel like they’ve done enough,” she said. “And there so much more to be done.”

Mr. Biden was the only leader of a major polluting country to appear at the climate talks in Egypt. President Xi Jinping of China, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India did not attend.

In Mr. Biden’s speech, he spoke of the long struggle to pass a climate law, noting that he introduced legislation more than 30 years ago as a senator to address what was then a looming crisis. “Finally,” he said, “today I can stand here as president of the United States of America and say, with confidence, the United States will meet its emissions targets by 2030.”

Mr. Biden’s stop at the summit was over almost as soon as it began. He landed in Egypt midafternoon after flying overnight from Washington. He then spent about three hours on the ground, meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and raising topics including “the importance of human rights and respect for fundamental freedoms,” White House officials said.

His speech at the summit lasted about 23 minutes. Afterward, he boarded Air Force One for a second overnight flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he will attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

From Cambodia, Mr. Biden will travel to Bali, Indonesia, for the Group of 20 meeting, where he plans to talk with Mr. Xi. Climate activists and diplomats are hoping that the men, who represent the world’s two largest economies as well as the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, might restart discussions about climate action. China suspended those talks in August out of anger over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

While on the ground in Egypt, the president announced modest new steps to build on the tax incentives and government spending programs in the climate law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which is designed to speed the adoption of electric vehicles as well as a transition to wind, solar and other clean energy sources.

One of the law’s provisions threatens fines of up to $1,500 per ton of methane released, to be imposed against the worst polluters. But there also is $1.55 billion in the package aimed at helping companies avoid those fines by pouring money into upgrading equipment to monitor and contain leaks.

The rule proposed by the E.P.A. includes a new provision the administration called the “super-emitter response program,” which would require oil and gas operators to respond to credible third-party reports that their sites were experiencing major methane leaks.

Control of Congress, which is still uncertain after this week’s midterm elections, could complicate any hope Mr. Biden has of passing additional climate legislation, including funding to fulfill America’s climate commitments to developing nations. If Republicans win control of one or both chambers of Congress, they are unlikely to support such spending.

Democrats who traveled to Egypt for the summit acknowledged that any new climate efforts, including moves to cut more emissions or secure more funding for developing countries, would be challenging. “It’s going to be very hard to get it done,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said.

Particularly when it comes to funding to help poor countries transition to clean energy or cope with the consequences of climate change, “we can’t get 60 votes for those issues,” Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said.

That opposition was underscored on Friday by Representative Greg Murphy, Republican of North Carolina, one of six House Republicans who traveled to Egypt for the summit. He said that Democrats were trying to shift away from fossil fuels too quickly, imperiling American growth and leaving the United States at a disadvantage to China.

“Fossil fuels built the world,” Mr. Murphy, a former surgeon, said. “And we’ll bankrupt the world and starve the world if we make a transition that is too fast.”

Lisa Friedman reported from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, and Jim Tankersley from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Max Bearak and David Gelles contributed reporting from Sharm el Sheikh.

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