On November 4, the United States officially left the Paris Climate Agreement, a global pact created to reduce carbon emissions and prevent the worst impacts of climate change. It was the culmination of a promise made by President Donald Trump during the campaign trail, but took his entire term to complete due to process and paperwork.
The country’s withdrawal, however, will be short-lived: the same day the country left the deal, President-elect Joe Biden vowed to join. “Today, the Trump administration officially left the Paris climate accord. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden administration will join it,” he tweeted.
The exit of the United States did not break the treaty; it requires 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions to comply. Today, even without the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the treaty has 188 countries accounting for 79% of emissions. Yet Trump’s actions have sent a troubling message to the world: the United States does not care about the perils of climate change and will not work with other countries to collectively reduce the amount of heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere.
“The Paris Agreement is an essential part of the climate action landscape,” says Katharine Mach, a climatologist at the University of Miami. “Our success in these efforts depends on fundamental cooperation.”
Biden’s pledge to join the deal signals that climate change will be a significant issue during his presidency. He has already outlined an ambitious plan to tackle US emissions, and re-entering the Paris Agreement is one of his many steps. It’s an easy step: once Biden sends a letter to the United Nations indicating his intention to join, the United States can officially return after 30 days; it does not need the support of the Senate. The biggest challenge will be implementing a policy to put the country on track to reduce emissions after four years lost to a pro-fossil fuel agenda.
Adopted in 2016, the Paris Agreement includes 189 countries (if you include the United States) that have agreed to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels. Study after study has shown the dangers of a warming world, including increased risk of drought, biodiversity loss and sea level rise. To achieve this goal, each signatory is required to submit national plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) ), to limit emissions. They must also regularly report on their climate actions and indicate whether they are on track to achieve their NDCs. The United States, which contributed 25% all greenhouse gases produced by man since 1751committed to reducing its emissions by 2025 by 26-28% below 2005 levels.
The country is currently not on track to achieve these goals. The Trump administration not only pushed back the Paris agreement, but also actively dismantled many government environmental programs, including those aimed at combating climate change. “The problem has been urgent for a while, but recent years have heightened the urgency even further,” says Sarah Lester, a marine scientist at Florida State University who studies the impacts of climate change on fisheries. “It’s a very big threat and something we have to take seriously. The United States really should be a world leader.
The country’s biggest national success in reducing emissions, tragically, has been the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the United States is expected to emit about 20 percent fewer greenhouse gases than in 2005, surpassing the nation’s 2020 NDC goal. However, these declines are due to the cessation of many carbon-emitting activities, including air and car traveland are not sustainable, nor significant enough to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
Joining the Paris Agreement alone will not resolve these shortcomings as NDCs are voluntary and not legally binding. After setting emissions targets with the international community, country leaders must adopt national policies to achieve them; the agreement will not succeed if the biggest culprits do not respect their commitments. Over the past four years, other countries’ progress has varied, but many of the top emitters are far from meeting their targets, according to Climate action tracking. China, for example, announced last September that it would stop emitting carbon dioxide by 2060, with a emissions peak before 2030. This promise still puts China behind the standard set by the Paris Agreement for nations to stop emitting greenhouse gases by 2050. The European Union, which has pledged to reduce emissions of at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, will probably also fail. Sweden, Portugal and France reached 77%, 66% and 65% of their 2020 goals, respectively. Bulgaria, Ireland and Poland have achieved only 26% of their targets, or even less.
Once the United States joins the agreement, making up for lost time will require new, more ambitious NDCs and a clear plan to achieve these goals. It will likely take time, as Biden will have to choose aggressive goals that are both consistent with reaching net zero by 2050 and achievable, says Kate Larsen, senior energy and climate researcher and director of Rhodium. Group, an independent research organization. He could announce the country’s new NDCs next November at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. How he achieves these goals, ambitious as they are, will be more difficult. On the campaign trail, Biden offered a $2 trillion climate plan, including Congressional legislation. If the Republican Party holds the Senate, it’s unlikely to be able to spend as much as it hoped, but it can still pass executive orders to override many of Trump’s orders and further regulate coal power through a more complicated rule-making process, Larsen said.
“The fastest emissions reductions this decade will come from the electricity sector,” she says. Coal consumption is already falling and is replaced by methane gas and renewable energy. Continuing this trend could “move us quite far towards achieving our goals,” she adds.
Even with a new administration, meeting the country’s climate goals is a major challenge, but Larsen is hopeful. Over the past four years, states continued to move forward, and energy markets are changing faster than expected. “I think the momentum is still there,” she says. “We just have to find the right levers to accelerate it.”