Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement — now the real work begins

President Biden at CNN town hall
Getty Images

When the Trump administration announced its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, many observers feared other nations would follow suit, causing the entire international framework to collapse. 

Today, Feb. 19, the U.S. makes its comeback to the Paris Agreement. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry is expected to mark the U.S.’s return to the international climate deal with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

This is a crucial first step and a powerful signal to the world, but it will take much more to restore America’s credibility on this issue. If the U.S. is to once again be a positive force for global climate action around the world, we must embrace ambitious, science-based policies here at home and a bold yet humble multilateralism abroad. On this score, the president’s executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis hits all the right notes. Now, comes the real work.

First, in addition to officially rejoining, the U.S. must actively participate in the Paris Agreement. Our return to the fold becomes official just shy of one month after Biden issued his statement. In the coming weeks, the administration needs to submit an updated and ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030. This 10-year plan for climate mitigation should include targets, measures and strategies that will help achieve the global goal of limiting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, including U.S. emissions reductions of 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The administration should also submit a revised long-term strategy to achieve greater than net zero emission levels by 2050 at the latest.

The previous administration spent four years slashing regulations on emissions from power plants and vehicles, removing protections for half of America’s wetlands and opening up more land for oil and gas development. The Biden administration clearly has its work cut out for it but it won’t have to start from scratch. 

Since 2017, nearly 4,000 leaders of states, cities and businesses — representing 160 million Americans and $9.5 trillion of the U.S. economy — have committed to fulfilling U.S. climate goals. These subnational actors have laid the groundwork for a robust green recovery that has the potential to drive American job growth and global market competitiveness.

The Biden administration can build on this foundation, augmenting its “whole-of-government” strategy with an “all-of-society” approach that accelerates decarbonization and resilience building. That means embracing the progress made by U.S. communities and institutions over the past four years and putting in place federal programs, policies and investments to further unleash innovation and investments across American society.

Second, the U.S. must enshrine climate change as a core guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy. To that end, the U.S. should reforge strong bilateral partnerships on climate and clean energy across the world, particularly with key nations like India and China. The government should also fully integrate climate considerations into its development, trade and security agendas and ensure climate change is a consistent head-of-state priority at the G7, G20 and other appropriate international fora.

Enhanced U.S. foreign assistance is also needed to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change, including funding for bilateral programs at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and multilateral financial mechanisms like the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The Obama administration pledged $3 billion to the GCF, but the U.S government only delivered one-third of that before the Trump administration halted payments. Meanwhile, many other countries have doubled down on their pledges. The Biden administration has committed to paying the outstanding $2 billion to catch up and this should be coupled with even more robust climate finance commitments going forward.

Third, the Biden administration must help lead global efforts to halt biodiversity loss. The loss of nature and the climate crisis are inextricably linked and each compounds the other. The U.S. must work with other nations, across all sectors of society, to protect and restore natural systems, including tropical forests and other carbon-rich landscapes and seascapes that provide nature-based solutions for both climate mitigation and resilience. According to one estimate, curbing deforestation and taking other steps to transform land use could contribute as much as 30 percent of the global emissions mitigation needed to meet a 1.5 degree Celsius warming target by 2050.

High-ranking former Republican and Democratic officials recently released an “Amazon Protection Plan” echoing this need for U.S. leadership on global forest conservation. In addition to new funding, it calls for stronger policies, including one to prevent imports of products grown on illegally deforested lands. The administration should act on the plan’s recommendations. It should also play a leading role in setting ambitious global goals and financing to protect nature overall, including at the president’s April 22nd Leaders Summit, the G7 and other landmark moments leading up to international conferences on biodiversity and climate later this year.        

The science is clear: climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined and existential crises and they demand a concerted global response. We need the U.S. to help lead that response, while also leading by example.

Alejandro Pérez is the senior vice president of Policy and Government Affairs at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Previously, he was special assistant to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, he served in the Obama White House and he worked in Congress for over 10 years. Follow the WWF on Twitter @World_Wildlife.

Tags Antonio Guterres biden administration Biden climate plan biden executive orders Biodiversity climate action Climate change climate crisis G7 Joe Biden John Kerry Leaders Summit net zero emissions Paris agreement Paris Climate Accords Xavier Becerra

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