Story at a glance
- Rejoining the Paris climate accord was one of the 17 executive orders signed by President Biden on his first day in office.
- A letter signed by President Biden puts the U.S. on track to rejoin the agreement in 30 days.
- World leaders and environmental activists are commending the new president for his quick action in re-committing, but they have emphasized that there is much work to be done on climate.
In one of his first acts in office, President Biden solidified his intention to recommit the United States to the Paris climate agreement. The move was made by President Biden on his very first day in office, a signal of what is to come from the newly established administration in terms of climate change action, but what follows won’t be as easy as sending a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations.
A letter sent to the UN has formally begun the 30-day process of bringing the United States, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, back into the accord. It will now be up to President Biden and his cabinet how we as a country will catch up to the rest of the nearly 200 countries committed to halting rising temperatures and providing aid to developing countries, which are already getting hit hard by the effects of climate change.
The Paris Climate Agreement is all about accountability
In December 2015, nearly every country in the world signed on to the global pact with the shared goal of reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. Seen by many as the pinnacle of President Obama’s environmental agenda, climate agreements signed by the United States and fellow global superpower China played an outsized role in securing a deal at the Paris climate talks that year.
Goals were established based on numerous scientific studies that illustrated the rise of global temperatures would not slow down should the world’s carbon emission levels continue unchecked. The rise of global temperatures, scientists urged, would not only result in hotter days but an increase in damaging, deadly category 4 and 5 storms, as well as drought, sea level rise and more.
The Paris climate accord signaled the compliance of each country, rich and poor, developed and not, to set goals that could hopefully avoid these harmful effects on our planet.
When did we actually leave the agreement?
During his 2016 campaign, former President Trump repeatedly asserted that climate change was a hoax, pledging to his supporters that should he take office the U.S. would “cancel” the Paris deal.
The former president announced on June 1, 2017 that the U.S. would formally withdraw from the agreement, citing that the agreement would be harmful to the economy and that joint global action on climate change was incompatible with his “America first” message. Under the terms of the original agreement, the country could not formally exit until Nov. 4 of 2020 — the day following the election that would decide whether the president was elected for a second term.
We have some catching up to do
Now that President Biden has the country on track to rejoin the agreement within the next 30 days, all eyes are on the United States to set concrete goals. While Americans only make up just more than 4 percent of the world’s population, we are responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they get a standing ovation just by entering the room,” former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said, referring to a U.S. return to global climate talks. “That doesn’t mean that they will have a standing ovation forever. They have to prove that they are really determined to make the changes that are necessary.”
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is one of the many who welcomed America’s return to the Paris accord, with an added caveat: “There is a very long way to go. The climate crisis continues to worsen and time is running out to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and build more climate-resilient societies that help to protect the most vulnerable.”
Indeed, climate diplomats are anxious to see how President Biden will follow through on his ambitious goal to put the United States on a track to net zero emissions by 2050. The president has yet to fully detail which regulatory tools will help get us to that target, but has already said that millions of jobs will come with making America’s infrastructure more green. President Biden also called for $2 trillion in climate spending while on the campaign trail, but he’ll ultimately need Congress to pass a budget.
“One of the core challenges for the administration is going to be reframing this as opportunity for green growth, for jobs - for the kind of things we’ve seen in Europe, which has managed to significantly grow its economy while reducing its carbon emissions,” said Kelley Kizzier, a former European Union climate negotiator who now works at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.
Biden has made lofty domestic climate promises such as canceling the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, retrofitting buildings and weatherizing homes to help save energy and investing in electric vehicle adoption, but he may also have to look overseas for opportunities to collaborate. The EU already seems on board, with their own plans to propose a carbon levy on imports of certain polluting goods in June. Biden pledged in his election to do the same, through “carbon adjustment fees or quotas” at the U.S. border.
Also to consider is the fact that the U.S. plays a huge role when it comes to funding for efforts to help countries already affected by the damaging effects of climate change — the cost of which has already reached $70 billion in developing countries and is only expected to grow, according to a recent United Nations report. So far, the U.S. has only fulfilled $1 billion out of a $3 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund, which supports developing nations’ efforts to address climate change.
“Rejoining is just the threshold,” Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Fast Company. “We need to do a lot more to show the world that the U.S. is going to do its fair share.”
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