- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Last Wednesday, with a divided and anxious citizenry awaiting the outcome of an agonizingly close election, President Donald Trump voted for climate change, as the United States became the first nation to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The good news is that Joe Biden, now the winner of the presidential election, can restore U.S. participation at the stroke of a pen. The bad news is that rejoining the pact won’t by itself do much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That will require dramatic domestic action from a deeply divided nation.
The Paris Agreement is the most impressive multilateral agreement ever reached to combat global warming. Negotiated at the 16th Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015, it commits signatories to hold the rise in average global temperatures from the pre-industrial era to 1.5 degrees Celsius, with 2 degrees Celsius as a fallback goal. Each country can determine how it will contribute to this goal, tailoring its actions to national circumstances. Parties further agree to review progress every five years, to “ratchet up” their efforts over time, and to provide poorer countries with $100 billion in climate financing. Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, it imposes obligations on developing and emerging countries rather than merely advanced economies.
The Paris Agreement came into force on Nov. 4, 2016, after 55 countries responsible for 55 percent of global emissions had formally joined it. Given the enormous hurdles to securing the consent of the Republican-controlled Senate at the time, President Barack Obama treated the accord as an executive agreement rather than pursue treaty ratification. This made it easier for his successor to leave the accord.
Trump promised to do just that, in a scathing June 2017 speech that framed the Paris Agreement as a mortal threat to the American economy and U.S. sovereignty. The reason it took so long for him to act is that the Obama administration negotiators ensured that any withdrawal would be protracted. Under the terms of the agreement, no party could announce its intent to quit for three years after the treaty’s entry into force and, even then, it would have to wait another 12 months before leaving.
Rejoining the agreement requires only a month’s notice. This means that the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter, could be back in the deal as early as Feb. 20 next year, as the world begins ramping up for the next round of U.N. climate talks in Glasgow, known as COP21, which were postponed from this month until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unfortunately, rejoining the accord itself will do little to change the current climate trajectory. To meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target, parties must cut global emissions 7.2 percent each year through 2030, reducing them 45 percent from 2010 levels. That is not going to happen. Emissions may fall by 8 percent this year because of the pandemic shutdowns—the biggest annual decline since World War II. But history suggests they will rebound sharply. Given the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, 2020’s brief downward blip will not slow the momentum of global warming.
To arrest climate change, nations must bend the global emissions curve downward as the world economy recovers from COVID-19. Writing in the journal Nature, Ryan Hanna, Yangyang Xu and David G. Victor distinguish between two possible scenarios: a “dirty” recovery based on business as usual, and a “green” recovery that sees clean energy technologies supplant old infrastructure. The two yield dramatically different results. With major investments in decarbonization, the world could reduce annual CO2 emissions by 230 gigatons, and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by about 19 parts per million, from what they would otherwise be.
Biden’s victory is a huge win for all who care about the living planet. During the campaign, he outlined an ambitious $2 trillion climate plan to help the U.S. achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Biden’s plan, if it becomes law, would place America alongside 60 other countries that have committed to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century, including European Union member states, as well as Japan and South Korea. (China promises to reach this goal by 2060).
The hard part will be delivering on this agenda, particularly since the “blue wave” on which Democrats were counting has failed to materialize. Much of Biden’s plan may be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, if the GOP retains control of the Senate, and with Democrats having a reduced majority in the House of Representatives. Biden would have to adjust to these legislative realities, which will disappoint some activist supporters.
The most promising area for bipartisan compromise is infrastructure investment. There is a precedent here, with which Biden is familiar. During the Great Recession, the Obama administration provided $90 billion in its 2009 stimulus package to promote clean energy. Biden should adopt this playbook, directing at least 15 percent of any post-pandemic recovery package to green infrastructure spending that promises to boost jobs and revenues. Promising targets for spending include assistance for hard-hit wind and solar sectors, which flourished before COVID-19, as well as for retrofitting buildings and public transportation.
Legislative success is important not only at home but for U.S. global leadership. A recurrent Achilles heel of international cooperation is the difficulty of making credible commitments, particularly when—as with the Paris Agreement—they are unenforceable. During the campaign, Biden promised voters to seek more ambitious global emissions reduction targets. But U.S. credibility in driving the global climate agenda will depend on persuading other nations that America has its own house in order, by passing serious domestic legislation, adopting critical regulatory changes and making long-term investments in clean energy infrastructure that lock in a national commitment to decarbonization.
While Capitol Hill will prove a challenge, Biden will find important allies among many U.S. states, cities and companies that have supported emissions reductions during the Trump years. This includes the members of the We Are Still In coalition and the America’s Pledge initiative, the latter established by Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, and Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City. The private sector landscape is also shifting fast. This past January, the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, joined a $41 trillion climate change investment pact, called Climate Action 100+, which is pressuring major corporate emitters to reduce their climate footprint. All the while, the cost of solar and wind power continues to decline and is highly competitive for new electricity generation infrastructure.
Finally, President Biden will be able to rely on strong public support for assertive action. The U.S. may be divided politically, but a majority of Americans considers climate change a “critical threat” to the nation, and four in five registered voters in a recent poll said that “achieving 100% clean power should be the primary goal of U.S. energy policy.” If politics is the art of the possible, the possibilities for U.S. global climate leadership are wider than they were just a few years ago.