The U.S. Is Back in the Paris Agreement. Now What?
The Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015 by 196 parties that pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, a result of 25 years of difficult negotiations. Although the U.S. originally signed on to the agreement, the Trump administration pulled out in 2017. How much progress have Paris Agreement members made in the meantime, and what could change now that the U.S. is rejoining? The parties were originally set to meet in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2020, to ratchet up their targets for emissions reductions, but because of COVID-19, the meeting was postponed for a year.
Where the Paris Agreement stands
Before the Paris Agreement, the world was headed for what would have been a disastrous 3.6˚ C increase in global temperatures by 2100. The Paris Agreement’s mission was to keep global warming below 2˚ C and ideally below 1.5˚ C compared to pre-industrial levels. At 1.5˚ C of warming, the world will still experience severe climate impacts, but at 2˚ C, they would be catastrophic.
Current efforts around the world have lowered the end-of-century projected warming to 2.9˚ C, but we are already experiencing 1.1˚ C of warming and will likely overshoot 1.5˚ C unless all emissions can be zeroed out by 2040. COVID-19 resulted in a 7 percent drop in global emissions in 2020 because all economies shut down; to keep warming below 1.5˚ C, we would have to keep cutting emissions by an additional 7 percent every year for the next decade.
New targets to reduce emissions
Although COP 26, the 2020 U.N. Climate Change Conference encompassing the Paris Agreement, was postponed, a Climate Ambition Summit was held in December to mark the agreement’s fifth anniversary. Before the summit, over 25 countries and the European Union had adopted net-zero targets, most to be achieved by 2050; net zero means attaining a balance between human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and those eliminated through carbon removal strategies. Almost 100 more countries had announced their intentions to do the same, and at the summit, 10 more countries followed suit. Biden has pledged that the U.S. will achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050. Together, these countries represent 63 percent of global emissions; if they achieve net-zero emissions, it might be enough to limit global warming to below 2˚ C by 2100, but it is still not enough to limit it to 1.5˚ C.
The Paris Agreement calls for countries to make their pledges to reduce emissions — called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — more ambitious every five years; the first step-up was to occur at the end of 2020. According to the Climate Vulnerable Forum, only 73 countries proposed revised goals, with 69 countries including the E.U., U.K., Argentina, and Ethiopia submitting more ambitious emissions reduction targets.
The E.U. pledged to cut emissions 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, and the U.K. promised to cut emissions 68 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. While China has not formally submitted an updated pledge, at the summit it declared that it would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060 and submit an enhanced NDC for 2030 in line with this goal; China also aims to peak its emissions by 2030.
Several other countries, including Russia, have kept the status quo. Brazil’s new pledge has effectively backtracked, and while Brazil did propose a 2060 net-zero goal, this would be contingent on receiving $10 billion a year in climate finance from other countries. Later this year, at COP 26, all other parties will have to submit updated NDCs.
The critical question, however, is whether or not countries can translate their long-term net-zero goals into the short-term policies that are necessary to realize them.
In 2010, the Green Climate Fund was established to collect donations from more developed countries to help small and developing nations adapt to climate change and reduce emissions. The developed countries pledged to muster $100 billion a year by 2020. At the end of 2020, however, the Green Climate Fund had only raised $7 billion, though it has received pledges for an additional $10 billion by 2023.
The gap between funding and climate adaptation needs may only grow larger over time. A U.N. Environment Programme report projected that adaptation in developing countries currently costs $70 billion a year; by 2030, it could cost $140 to 300 billion, and by 2050, $280 to 500 billion. In the new round of NDCs, developing nations have already requested $373 billion in climate financing.
The Obama administration pledged $3 billion to the climate fund, but the U.S. has only paid in $1 billion so far. John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, recently announced that the U.S. would “make good” on the rest of money it had pledged to the Green Climate Fund.
What the U.S. must do
After President Trump announced he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, many European allies worried that it would undermine efforts to get other countries to make ambitious cuts in their emissions, since the U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter behind China. The departure of the U.S. also meant it would not contribute its share to the Green Climate Fund.
During Obama’s presidency, the U.S. pledged to curb emissions between 26 percent and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, with a longer-term goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2050. Because of COVID, U.S. emissions in 2020 were 21.5 percent below 2005 levels, according to an estimate by the Rhodium Group. This includes the efforts of cities, businesses, universities and 25 governors that joined the U.S. Climate Alliance and pledged to work to achieve Obama’s targets after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. But the 21.5 percent drop doesn’t mean that the U.S. is on track to meet Obama’s pledge of 26 percent to 28 percent reduction by 2025 or 80 percent by 2050, because emissions are expected to increase again this year as the pandemic is gradually controlled.
To reestablish the U.S. as a climate leader, Biden needs to re-enter Paris with a target that is more ambitious than Obama’s, one that reflects the stepped-up goals set by the E.U. and the U.K. and satisfies the expectations of domestic green groups. Moreover, if the U.S., China, Japan, and the E.U. make bold commitments in their NDCs, it should serve as a strong incentive for all other countries to follow suit.
Most importantly, however, a more ambitious U.S. emissions reduction target must be achievable. In a Columbia University webinar, “Prospects for Climate Action Under the Biden Administration,” Kelly Simms Gallagher, professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, said, “It’s going to take a little time for the Biden administration to figure out what is possible — what policy pathways are possible and what legislative pathways are possible. It’s going to be very important to do everything that can be done to ensure we actually can meet the target.”
While passing climate legislation quickly will help reassure allies that the U.S. is seriously back in the climate fight and hopefully spur other countries to take bold action, Gallagher stressed that the U.S. should be “humble” in its initial approach.
“We pushed really hard to encourage countries to increase ambition and join the Paris Agreement and we negotiated that agreement diligently and in good faith,” she said. “But because of the Trump administration, the U.S. literally walked away from the Paris Agreement, didn’t uphold any of its commitments on climate finance or in terms of domestic action. So we’re not coming to foreign policy from a position of strength right now. To me, the most important step is an intensive effort on domestic policy and getting our own house in order, and that would then put us in a much better position in terms of our foreign policy on climate.”
Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, concurred, saying, “We’ve lost a lot of credibility over the last four years.”
What is feasible on the domestic front?
President Biden has mapped out a $2 trillion clean energy and green jobs plan, has pledged to cut emissions from electricity to zero by 2035, and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. With slim majorities in the House and Senate, this will not be easy. And there are only three pathways Biden could take: He can work across the aisle with Congress, work with Congress without bipartisanship, or take executive action.
In addition to rejoining the Paris Agreement on day one, Biden signed an executive order instructing all agencies to review actions taken over the last four years that are inconsistent with his climate policies and to suspend, revise or rescind them. These include the Trump administration’s actions to weaken regulations for methane emissions, fuel economy standards, appliance energy efficiency standards, and hazardous air pollutant standards.
Biden’s executive actions have also revoked Trump’s executive orders that weakened requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from federal operations, sped up environmental reviews, fast-tracked oil and gas pipelines, promoted offshore drilling, and removed protection for national monuments to allow for fossil fuel development. Biden put a moratorium on fossil fuel leasing on federal land and water, directed agencies to curtail fossil fuel subsidies, and restored science to the climate change fight.
He has also revoked the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, nullified decisions that cut the size of some national monuments, and reestablished the social cost of carbon that assesses the economic impacts of climate change. In addition, he has directed federal agencies to procure electric and carbon-free vehicles. His order to make climate change a national security priority directs intelligence agencies to evaluate climate security, and the Department of Defense and other agencies to develop plans that take climate change into consideration.
In the webinar, Gerrard said that there are additional actions Biden can take without Congress. He could enable the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the Department of the Interior to move forward with approving offshore wind. He can repeal changes Trump made to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of the actions they are proposing, and reverse the damage done to the Endangered Species Act.
With his existing authority alone, Biden could also take action with financial regulations. He could require the Securities and Exchange Commission to strengthen requirements for disclosures by publicly traded corporations of the effects of climate regulation and climate change risks. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates the electricity and natural gas sectors, could be directed to favor more renewables instead of fossil fuels. And FERC and the Department of Energy could encourage the siting of electric transmission lines for renewables, which will be needed for decarbonization.
Gerrard also suggested that with the support of the House and 51 votes in the Senate (including that of Vice President Harris), Biden could employ the reconciliation process, which allows certain taxes and spending items to be expedited. For example, Biden could adopt taxing and spending measures that encourage renewable energy, including a price on carbon. He could also engage in a massive infrastructure program to build out clean energy.
“I think he’s doing everything that he possibly can within his existing authority,” said Gerrard. “But it’s going to be very difficult to get to zero carbon electricity by 2035, and to net-zero by 2050. Executive authority will take us a good ways there but not cross the finish line.”
A whole-of-government approach
Unlike previous administrations that mainly used the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of the Interior to deal with environmental and climate issues, Biden signed an executive order making climate change a priority across the federal government — an “all-of-government” approach to climate change. In other words, he is directing federal agencies to address climate change in their decision-making and installing dedicated climate policy staff in many. Such a whole-of-government approach was previously only used in World War II. The founder of a climate advocacy group that advised Biden’s transition team said, “Every agency is a climate agency now.”
Agency heads across the board have been directed to increase renewable energy, decrease fossil fuel production, and prioritize environmental justice. Here are some examples of how certain agencies could carry out the whole-of-government strategy. The Department of Defense, which procures supplies for all the military branches, is the largest purchaser of fossil fuels in the government; it would shift its purchases to clean energy technologies and low-carbon fuels. The Treasury Department would require banks and other financial institutions to consider climate risks in their investments.
The Department of Agriculture would give farmers and forest owners credits to encourage the use of emissions-reducing strategies. The Department of Education would fund more programs to increase understanding of climate change, as well as procure electric buses and green schools. The Department of Transportation could set up more charging stations for electric vehicles, and invest more on public transportation. The Justice Department will defend Biden’s policies, but also have a special environmental and climate justice division, and carry out enforcement against major companies that pollute.
“I think it’s essential that every lever be pulled,” said Gerrard. “Action on climate and energy cuts across much of the federal government. And so it’s very important and wise that he do this. However, it’s still not enough without Congress.”
Ultimately, Biden needs 60 votes in Congress to break a filibuster that Republicans would likely mount when he attempts to advance legislation to regulate emissions from the largest greenhouse gas-emitting sectors: vehicles, power plants and methane leaks from oil and gas operations. He needs the cooperation of Congress to create lasting regulations.
“Without Congress locking in progress, the next president could undo much of what Biden has done just as Biden is now undoing what Trump did, and Trump undid much of what Obama did,” said Gerrard. “Without explicit congressional action, we’re very vulnerable to this kind of back and forth, which destroys the momentum that is needed to drive industry industries to work at the nonstop breakneck pace that is necessary.” Currently, the House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats; in the Senate, Republicans hold 50 seats, Democrats hold 48 and two are held by independents. Under the current composition of Congress, the only policies that could withstand potential future efforts to rescind them are those that Biden can secure with bilateral cooperation from Congress.
With a larger Democratic majority in the Senate, Biden would have a better chance of passing more far-reaching climate legislation — a turn of events that could occur in 2022, when 20 Republican Senate seats are up for grabs.