Can the US reclaim global leadership on the climate crisis?

On the 4th of November, the US officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement. This came as no surprise, as president Trump announced his intention to leave back in 2017. Joe Biden promised to rejoin the deal on “on day one in office”. Can America, originally a key part of the deal, take back the lead on global climate issues?

“Make Our Planet Great Again” protest placard at Fridays for Future
Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

Why the 4th of November?

To submit a withdrawal notice, countries must wait for at least three years after the agreement enters into force. For the US, that was the 4th of November 2016. This then takes twelve months to process, which brings us to the 4th of November this year, four years after the agreement entered into force and the earliest possible date for the US to withdraw.

To rejoin the agreement, the president must issue a letter to the UN, which takes effect in 30 days. Biden will be sworn into office in January 2021 and so the US could rejoin as early as February next year. 

What is the Paris agreement?

The Paris Climate Agreement is an international deal which aims to keep global temperature rise this century under 2°C below pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.  The agreement was negotiated in Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) under the UN Framework for Climate Change in 2015. The Paris accord is a successor of a similar agreement, the Kyoto Protocol from 1997, and is currently ratified by 188 countries. 

Each signatory sets its own targets or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which are collectively reviewed and assessed every five years. Rather than being legally binding, the agreement represents a form of political peer pressure and collective action.

Why is the US important to global climate change mitigation?

The US is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which currently makes it the world’s second worst polluter, preceded only by China and followed by the EU. The US was a key negotiator in the Paris agreement and was expected to take the lead on the issue. Originally, it pledged to decrease emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Right now, it is not on track to do that.

The Green Climate Fund

Besides the potential to reduce its own emissions, the US is also an important contributor to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). A key component of the Paris agreement, the GCF was founded to invest into climate resilience projects in developing countries. To do this, it aimed to globally mobilise 100 billion USD per year up until 2020. The Obama administration originally pledged 3 billion USD to the fund and paid the first instalment of 1 billion, but Trump halted the rest of the payments. The US rejoining the deal could bring significant funding to the GCF.

Trump administration rollbacks

The Trump administration rolled back over 70 environmental regulations, including many related to GHG emissions. A famous example of this is The Energy Independence Executive order which scrapped one of Obama’s signature environmental policies, the Clean Energy Plan. 

In reaction to the withdrawal from the Paris agreement, over 500 local authorities (cities, counties and states) joined the America’s Pledge on Climate Change initiative launched by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of NYC and Jerry Brown, governor of California. The initiative is a joint effort to keep the US on track with goals set in Paris. In their report from September this year, they stated: “Despite four years of environmental rollbacks from President Trump’s administration, bold climate actions from non-federal actors have successfully counterbalanced the climate denial and obstruction from the White House.” Their efforts could indeed be what allows the US to present a strong climate plan at the Conference of the Parties next year in Glasgow. 

Despite four years of environmental rollbacks from President Trump’s administration, bold climate actions from non-federal actors have successfully counterbalanced the climate denial and obstruction from the White House.”

Where does Joe Biden stand on climate?

In the run-up to the election, Biden claimed: “I do not support the Green New Deal… I support the Biden plan.” The ambitious Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice plan was one of the cornerstones of Biden’s campaign. With an investment of 1.7 trillion USD into clean technology and infrastructure, it aims to get America to net zero by 2050. Critics point out that while inspired by the Green New Deal, it is narrower and relies too heavily on carbon capture technology. The main problems with carbon capture are the high costs and a history of delays and cancellations from companies – time countries cannot afford to lose now. It is still important in reaching net zero but it should not divert attention from cutting emissions (which it quite often does). The president-elect has stated that he will not ban fracking, something environmentalists have been pushing for for a long time.

The first real challenge awaits the US next November at COP26 in Glasgow. Participants will have to submit and evaluate progress from the past five years and set targets for the next five and all eyes will be on America. If the US wants to reclaim global leadership on the climate crisis, it will have to come up with an ambitious and detailed plan.

Written by Adéla Pafková and edited by Ishbel Dyke.

Adéla’s thoughts… Even though China is currently the worst polluter, historically, it’s the US who is responsible for the most GHG emitted into the atmosphere – pollution that is still there today. So it seems suitable for it to take responsibility and the lead in solving the climate crisis. I am very curious about what the Biden administration will be able to achieve. The president will need the cooperation of the House and the Senate to carry out his plan, so we will probably see many changes and compromises along the way.

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