America and the Paris Agreement: Withdrawal, Recommitment, and Future Implications
By Caroline Weiss
What is the Paris Climate Agreement?
Adopted on December 12, 2015, the Paris Agreement was a landmark turning point for global climate action. The 32-page accord was written over two weeks in Paris during the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21). Along with 195 other nations, former President Barack Obama entered the United States into the agreement through his executive authority in September 2016. Once at least 55 nations representing 55% of global emissions formally joined the agreement on October 5, 2016, the accord went into force a month later.
The goals of the accord are to address climate change and its already dire impacts by attaining commitments from participating nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (Denchak). Through required and increasingly ambitious climate strategies known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the Paris Agreement ensures that governments strengthen their mitigation and adaptation efforts every five years (“Secretary-General”). These NDCs are mandatory actions each country must take to ensure emission reductions, and are scaled to each country’s capabilities, development, and past pollution contributions. Participants in this legally binding international treaty must also outline ways that they plan to increase their resilience in order to adapt to a warming world. Economic and social transformation are imperative to adapting to effects such as drought, flooding, intensified storms, and others (“The Paris Agreement”).
Upon joining the accord in 2016, the United States committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 through its Clean Power Plan and stricter automotive fuel economy standards. Collectively, parties to the agreement aim to limit global warming to below 2℃ over the coming century and ideally below 1.5℃ (Figure 1). To assist developing countries in need of funds for mitigation and adaptation efforts, developed countries are strongly encouraged to provide financial support. With these funds, developing countries are working toward equity-focused goals that address deep-rooted issues such as energy poverty through climate-friendly solutions of renewable energy integration (Denchak). The agreement also established an Enhanced Transparency Framework (ETF) to hold countries accountable to honestly reporting their progress toward their climate plans and the support given or received (“The Paris Agreement”).
Figure 1: Predicted changes in mean temperature and precipitation at 1.5°C (left) and 2°C (middle) of global warming in comparison to the pre-industrial period (1861-1880) and the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of temperature increase (right) (IPCC).
The Paris Agreement is vital because skyrocketing anthropogenic emissions have and are continuing to drive global warming, causing exacerbated droughts, heat waves, floods, wildfires, and storms (Figure 2). Extreme heat contributes to cardiovascular and water-borne diseases, water scarcity, and rising sea levels (Denchak). Yet despite these existential threats, some leaders consider the Paris Agreement too costly due to economic expenses incurred to achieve emissions-reductions targets. Despite the fact that climate change is already detrimentally affecting public health and that clean energy is economically beneficial, former President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from this international treaty. Without global collaboration on climate change, an issue that will adversely affect all nations, the agreement’s future success was significantly threatened.
Figure 2: Global CO₂ emissions by country, 1970-2015 (Gray).
Why did the United States Withdraw?
Former President Trump first threatened to reverse Obama’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement for “A world that is safer and more secure, more prosperous, and more free.” Trump’s decision on June 1, 2017, was part of a series of U.S. environmental policy rollbacks and efforts to prioritize a fossil fuel-driven economy (Denchak). On November 4th, 2019, Trump officially informed the United Nations of his intention to withdraw in one year after the required notice period. Due to beliefs that the agreement would force unreasonable burdens on the U.S. economy and endanger American sovereignty, Trump declared that he was prioritizing American cities over Paris. Yet this retreat from the Paris Accord and international climate mitigation efforts was unpopular with several local U.S. leaders and foreign negotiators, who spent the early months of Trump’s presidency unsuccessfully attempting to regain American support for the accord (Friedman).
Domestic and International Efforts After Withdrawal
Domestic and international strategizing for the potential of a second Trump administration occurred beginning in November 2019, although environmentalists remained hopeful that a new Democratic president would rejoin the accord. Within the U.S., climate advocates pressured states, cities, and businesses to reduce emissions and incorporate more renewable energy sources into their electrical grids. Local governments and businesses made new emissions pledges under the “We Are Still In” movement to demonstrate that Americans support the Paris Accord even if the Trump administration does not (Friedman).
This diverse coalition of governors, business executives, and mayors attempted to represent America on climate policy by doing what they could to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Facing immense pressure from other nations and worsening effects of global warming—droughts, wildfires, sea level rise, and more—these local leaders adopted ambitious goals. California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in September 2018 that required the state’s utilities to use 100% zero-carbon electricity sources by 2045. Over 70 cities signed a goal of purchasing enough renewable power to offset all of their electrical consumption and several Fortune 500 companies invested billions of dollars into constructing new wind and solar farms. However, the U.S. remained far from its Paris pledges because although incorporation of more renewable sources of energy in electric grids was attainable, power plants account for just one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (Plumer). Beyond power generation, emissions from cars and trucks, farming, and industrial sectors are even more difficult to reduce and decarbonize, and nation-wide policy change was beyond the reach of the “We Are Still In” leaders, who represented only 16 states and Puerto Rico.
Internationally, participating nations worked toward readjusting their Paris targets to compensate for America’s refusal to cooperate. China and India, developing nations that are not obligated to reduce emissions, agreed to speed up original emissions targets. The Paris Agreement “…is the second global climate change pact that the United States joined under a Democrat and abandoned under a Republican. George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol” (Friedman). Consequently, other nations lost confidence in America’s willingness to follow through on climate commitments. When the world was anticipating a potential 2020 Democratic victory, climate policy experts predicted that President Biden would, upon rejoining the accord, be expected to present specific policies showing how America planned to transition away from fossil fuels (Friedman).
Why did the United States Rejoin?
On his first day in office, January 20 2021, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. recommitted the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement and directed federal agencies to reinstitute the over 100 environmental regulations that former President Trump weakened or rolled back. His “…moves represent a first step in healing one of the deepest rifts between the United States and the rest of the world after Mr. Trump defiantly rejected the Paris pact and seemed to relish his administration’s push to weaken or undo major domestic climate policies” (Davenport and Friedman). Unlike his predecessor, Biden has promised to prioritize the climate crisis by striving to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector by 2035 and from the whole economy by 2050 through ambitious policies. Furthermore, Biden plans to exceed Obama’s original target by reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as 40-50% below 2005 levels by 2030. New regulations, more investment in renewable energy, and assistance for states with the transition from coal will assist the country in achieving these aims.
Foreign leaders responded enthusiastically to Biden’s climate related executive actions, since as a major economy, U.S. pollution reduction is necessary to global success in limiting temperature rise (Figure 3). As of February 19, 2021, the U.S. has officially rejoined the agreement and all eyes are on the U.S. to make the changes necessary to achieve Biden’s new climate goals. Foreign negotiators, having lost trust in the U.S., will demand that the Biden administration prove it is able to do what it claims (Davenport and Friedman).
Figure 3: Top greenhouse gas emitters since 1850. Emissions are measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Maizland).
How will the United States Achieve Paris Targets?
With Biden in charge, the United States is in a good position to implement critical policies and promote infrastructure needed to address global warming and make progress toward its Paris goals. Biden’s climate plan is necessarily comprehensive and ambitious, which will in turn pressure other national leaders to work more aggressive toward reducing their emissions. His goals ensure that American businesses and laborers can “…lead a clean energy revolution that achieves a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and puts the United States on an irreversible path to a net-zero economy by 2050” (“Fact Sheet”). As he helps the nation recover from COVID-19, Biden intends to simultaneously advance climate justice and a clean energy economy (Denchak).
Zero carbon solutions are becoming more common in global economic sectors, such as power and transport (responsible for 25% of global emissions). Moreover, carbon neutrality targets are being established in more and more cities and companies across the world (“The Paris Agreement”). Although members of the Paris Accord still have pressing challenges ahead, significant progress has been made and will hopefully be accelerated as a result of the United States’ recommitment.
Posted: March 17, 2021
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