The US will rejoin the Paris climate agreement, but that was the easy part

President Joe Biden recommitted the US to the Paris climate accord during his first day in office, fulfilling one of his earliest campaign promises. In 30 days, the US will once again be part of the global accord. Rejoining the agreement is as easy as sending a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations. What comes after that will be much harder.

The US turned its back on efforts to tackle the climate crisis together as a planet when Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. Trump decimated federal efforts to slash emissions within the US, and he stood by other right-wing leaders — like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who similarly dismantled environmental protections — even as their countries burned like never before because of climate change. Now, the US needs to regain the world’s trust and show that it means business when it comes to taking on climate change.

“One of the things the world is very tired of is seeing the US make promises we don’t keep,” says Alden Meyer, a senior associate focused on US and international climate policy at E3G, a London-based think tank. “They want to know that whatever commitments we do make, we have not only the intention, but the wherewithal and the political support to pull off.”

Biden has made big promises already, like pledging to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 2035 and reaching a “100 percent clean energy” economy by 2050. But those promises still aren’t enough to set the US on a course to meaningfully engage with the rest of the world on climate change again. Biden will need to set more near-term goals and solidify a plan to dramatically slash US greenhouse gas emissions during his time in office.

The clock is ticking. During Barack Obama’s administration, the US signed onto the Paris accord and promised to slash greenhouse gas emissions between 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. That’s a goal the US is not on track to meet. The US is now expected to bring an updated commitment to the global table before a United Nations Climate Conference planned for November. Other countries ratcheted up their pledges last year.

The landmark Paris agreement, adopted in 2015, joined nearly every country on Earth in an effort to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. The planet has already heated up by about 1.2 degrees. To keep it from warming much further, global carbon dioxide emissions will need to continually drop by more than 7 percent each year until 2030. That’s about how much emissions fell because of the effects of the pandemic on economies.

In the future, those cuts need to be intentional — not the result of an unexpected health crisis. With a narrow Democratic majority in Congress, Biden hopes to pass legislation to turn some of his environmental plans into law. Climate policy will likely dovetail with pandemic relief plans. Biden has said that millions of jobs will come with making America’s infrastructure more green — from building charging stations for electric vehicles to making homes and buildings more energy-efficient. The president called for $2 trillion in climate spending while on the campaign trail, but he’ll ultimately need Congress to pass a budget.

Biden will need to take action without Congress, too. He’s expected to take executive action to kill the embattled Keystone XL pipeline, for instance. There will also be an about-face at federal agencies that previously carried out Trump’s environmental rollbacks. The EPA and Department of Transportation can toughen standards for polluting facilities and vehicles. The Department of the Interior can fulfill Biden’s pledge to end new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters.

Whatever actions the US ends up taking to get its greenhouse gas emissions under control will matter for the entire planet. Currently, the US is the second biggest polluter after China. Historically, the US has released more greenhouse gases than any other country.

The US getting serious about climate change again also puts more pressure on governments that have dragged their feet when it comes to ratcheting up climate commitments. “Many of the countries who don’t really want to take action have been using the US as the excuse to say, ‘Well, you know, the largest economy of the world has reneged,” says Carlos Fuller, international and regional liaison officer at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center. Fuller was previously the lead climate negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States. “They were really almost given free rein to not living up to their obligations [under] the Paris agreement.”

The US also plays a big role when it comes to funding for efforts to help countries adapt to the hazards climate change has already caused. The US 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.

“It really has hampered how countries can do the adaptation measures that are required,” says Fuller. Small island nations, like those Fuller has negotiated on behalf of, have contributed far less to climate change than bigger countries. But they’ve faced devastating climate effects early on, like more severe storms and rising sea levels gobbling up their coastlines.

The cost of adapting to climate change has already reached $70 billion in developing countries and is only expected to grow, according to a recent United Nations report. Despite the need, only $30 billion of development aid was funneled into those efforts between 2017 and 2018, the latest figures show. The US is expected to return to the world stage with funding that either meets or exceeds its previous commitment. But Biden will need the support of Congress to make that happen.

Biden’s administration has a big task ahead of juggling domestic policy with international climate finance and diplomacy. “They have to acknowledge the need for the US to be serious on all of those fronts to have credibility coming back into the Paris Agreement,” says Meyer.

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