Regardless of Election Result, U.S. Will Still Depart the Paris Agreement November 4
(This story has been updated) Even if a Biden-Harris victory is confirmed and declared in the hours after the polls close in next week’s presidential election, the United States will still become the first and only country to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on November 4.
And even though Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the international deal “on day one” of his new administration, at least one key aspect of that triumphant return will be “like trying to jump onboard a moving train,” InsideClimate News reports.
Like this story? Subscribe to The Energy Mix and never miss an edition of our free e-digest.
In 2015, the U.S. was one of driving forces behind the international pact, before Donald Trump bumbled his way into the White House and announced the country’s Paris withdrawal in 2019, InsideClimate and Grist both recall.
“It’s been heartbreaking,” said Andrew Light, a senior U.S. climate negotiator under President Barack Obama.
Click here for our Special Report on climate and the U.S. election.
On one level, that’s easily remedied once Biden takes office. “The U.S. could rejoin the global climate pact quickly,” InsideClimate writes. “After sending a letter to the United Nations Secretary General, the United States would once again become a party to the Paris Agreement 30 days later.” And “if it’s backed up with ambitious domestic climate policies, a green recovery from the pandemic, support from Congress, and a renewed push for international collaboration on various climate initiatives, the U.S. re-entry could help reinvigorate worldwide efforts to transition to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.”
But while U.S. cities, states, businesses, and universities have all been working to reduce their emissions since Trump took the federal government off the field, the country as a whole could only rejoin Paris by filing a new carbon reduction goal with the UN climate secretariat—and showing how it planned to hit the target.
“You can’t be a party of the Paris Agreement unless you’ve got a commitment in good standing,” Light said. “That’s required, not optional. We would be in arrears by the time Biden would rejoin Paris.”
While commitments under the Paris deal are voluntary, “the U.S. would already be behind on its previous promise to reduce emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025,” Grist notes. “And it would have to hastily cobble together a new goal, as all parties to the agreement are expected to meet in Glasgow next November to unveil their new, upgraded commitments for 2030.” (Update: Climate organizations have clarified that the U.S. can rejoin Paris simply by writing to the UN based on its existing, Obama-era Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC. But as Grist notes, the momentum toward accelerating national commitments to faster, deeper carbon cuts would then set the expectation for the U.S. to come up with a revised NDC.)
“2021 is all about signaling that countries are going to ratchet up their ambition” to cut emissions, said Rachel Cleetus, policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It needs to be a race to the top, a high-ambition exercise—not continuing to evade responsibility.”
But the history of the U.S. commitment—a Clean Power Plan introduced by Obama, then challenged in the courts before it was repealed by Trump—has produced enough skepticism about U.S. intentions that Team Biden will have to show up in Glasgow with proof that it’s taking action, not just promises, Light said.
“There’s no shortage of people in other countries who are skeptical of the United States backing up a commitment only with presidential action,” he told Grist. “They feel like they kind of got burned.”
But while Grist puts U.S. carbon cuts to date at only 12%, InsideClimate says emission cuts announced or planned by the America’s Pledge coalition would add up to a 25% reduction by 2030, “even with pushback from the federal government”. Even “moderate federal support for those efforts could help the U.S. achieve a 50% reduction by 2050,” the publication adds, citing Light. “The coalition also contributed to the new Zero Carbon Action Plan, released October 27, that could be a roadmap for getting to net-zero emissions by 2050.”
InsideClimate lists vehicle emission standards and reinstating Obama-era methane controls as key elements of a renewed national plan.
But despite the temptation and almost visceral pressure for Biden to quickly reaffirm America’s commitment to the Paris accord, climate economist Reimund Schwarze of Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research said the new U.S. administration should consider its first steps carefully rather than rushing to make a political statement.
“Having a robust national emissions plan in place first would make the re-entry more credible, and waiting a few months to line up the pieces would make no big difference to the international process,” InsideClimate write, citing Schwarze. And “Biden could use that time to get Congressional support for rejoining the Paris Agreement, which could make it harder for a future administration to pull out again.”
With the European Union and China now driving the Paris process, Biden “could even bring the U.S. back to a leadership role,” Schwarze added. “But you need a strategy to become a leader.”