The US Returns to the Paris Agreement Today—With Lots of Work Ahead for the World

The US Returns to the Paris Agreement Today—With Lots of Work Ahead for the World

The US Returns to the Paris Agreement Today—With Lots of Work Ahead for the World

Slashing emissions at home is only part of the challenge—the United States must also help other countries go green.


Today, the United States formally reenters the Paris Agreement. Signed in December of 2015 by the Obama administration and abandoned in 2017 by then-President Trump, the accord was and remains a landmark achievement in global climate diplomacy. Heads of government, business leaders, and climate activists the world over have welcomed the US return. President Biden will host world leaders at a virtual climate summit at the White House on Earth Day, April 22, to prepare for the next big UN climate meeting, in November in Glasgow, Scotland. And there’s a lot to be done before then if the Paris goal of preserving a livable climate is to be achieved.

When gaveled through on December 12, 2015, the Paris Agreement broke an agonizing, decades-long political deadlock. There was jubilation, and not only in the halls of policy. In Paris, finally, we had won a universal treaty for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a treaty that applied to all countries, whether wealthy or developing—a precondition of any future success. Finally, we could pivot from the endless, often bad-faith negotiations, and get down to the hard work of global decarbonization.

The breakthrough was real, but it was never the whole story. There were also mixed feelings, a good measure of bitter criticism, and unfinished business. The Paris Agreement, which had merely made it possible to move on, did not deliver an operational breakthrough.

Not that anyone really expected it to do so. The dream of a global accord that immediately set out to stabilize the climate system—a “Plan A” accord in which science-based and legally binding national emissions reduction targets and timetables were nailed down by cooperative leaders working earnestly together to save our common world—that dream had been shattered way back in the dark winter of 2009’s Copenhagen climate summit. Copenhagen has been widely derided as a failure, but I prefer to call it a disillusionment. Climate change is a true existential danger, and in the face of such a danger, illusions are not our friends.

Despite its many and substantial flaws, the Paris Agreement put in place a foundation that participating nations could, in principle, use to build institutions and processes that deliver a rapid international climate transition. It was never intended to be the end of the story. In fact, its so-called “ambition mechanism” by which national pledges are repeatedly strengthened is still missing its crucial finance and assessment provisions. Nevertheless, the basic architecture of an international transition strategy is in place. Its core is an open-ended series of five-year cycles in which the pledges are intended to become ever stronger. The first cycle began in Paris. The second, which the pandemic delayed, is now beginning and brings with it the good news that the national pledges are being strengthened—and could be strengthened further by a considerable margin.

The bad news is that we’re running out of time. The Paris Agreement’s goal is to keep “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. And—as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear in its 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C—we had best do our damnedest to achieve it. Two degrees Celsius would bring us closer to a geophysical tipping point. More bad news: Planetary warming appears to be accelerating, and the 1.5°C goal may already be out of reach. “Policymakers,” as a recent paper in Nature noted, “have less time to respond than they thought.”

The conclusion is clear: We have to build back fossil-free, but that alone will not be enough. According to the 2020 edition of the UN’s authoritative Emissions Gap report, nations will have to triple their current reduction pledges if they’re to get on track for the 2°C goal, and increase them more than fivefold if they’re honestly shooting for 1.5°C. Holding the 1.5°C line means cutting global emissions in half by 2030, then doing so again by 2040, then again by 2050. Even if we’re lucky enough to have this much time, such a transition is impossible without a global mobilization of the first order. This simply isn’t going to happen without major changes in the global financial architecture and equally major changes in the “lifestyle” emissions of the rich.

Which brings us back to Paris’s unfinished ambition mechanisms, and to December 2020, when the UN’s climate secretariat organized a global Climate Ambition Summit. This was, in effect, a high-level virtual pledging conference, spun up to substitute for last year’s postponed climate summit. Presidents and prime ministers were given the screen, and they did deliver a good bit of encouraging news. The details of the second-step pledges aren’t yet known, but we do know a few key numbers. A group of countries is committing to zeroing out their national carbon emissions by midcentury. The group so far has over 130 members, covering 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Once the United States joins, as Biden has promised it will, that number will rise to 63 percent.

A recent IPCC’s summary tells us that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C, requires rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” and even achieving the fallback goal of “well below 2°C” will require a Herculean effort. To do so, two conditions must be met: First, we’ll need a green technology revolution. This is indeed possible; solar, according to no less an authority than the International Energy Agency, is already the “cheapest electricity in history”—though its deployment is still far, far too slow. Second, we’ll need a new age of global cooperation.

The immediate challenge is climate finance. No matter how transformative the renewables revolution turns out to be, to rapidly transform the global economy from its current overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels will require lots of financial help. The European Union has announced it will reduce its emissions by 55 percent by 2030, and China pledges “carbon neutrality” by 2060. But the world’s less wealthy countries cannot be expected to follow rapidly without significant infusions of financial and technological support. Poverty alleviation and development are the proper objectives of poorer countries, and they will not act with sufficient resolve to decarbonize their economies unless they can do so while pursuing those goals.

To support those efforts, the EU has pledged to double its contributions to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which is designed to support developing countries in the climate transition. President Barack Obama managed to provision the fund with $3 billion, only to see the Trump administration rescind the $2 billion that had not yet been disbursed when it took office. It was a travesty, but hardly a unique one. In Copenhagen, in 2009, the rich nations pledged $100 billion per year to help developing countries make the climate transition, but, according to Oxfam International, the support they’ve actually delivered amounts to $19 billion to $22 billion per year. Biden has said he wants the United States to return to Paris as a “climate leader.” He’ll have to start by paying Trump’s $2 billion debt, and then matching the European move by doubling the United States’ initial pledge. That’ll be $8 billion, to get back in the game.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said, “Establishing ambitious climate goals is one thing; achieving them is another.” The implementation gap, as it’s called, will not be closed without breakthroughs in both public and private finance. The world’s 25 largest global banks have invested over $2.7 trillion into fossil energy in the years since Paris; that has to stop. On the positive side, the European Investment Bank’s decision to become “Paris aligned” could, if honestly pursued, mark a key milestone, as could the UK’s decision to stop subsidizing overseas fossil development before the Glasgow summit in November. If the floodgates of fossil fuel subsidy aren’t shut, and funds aren’t shifted to support climate transition around the world, then today’s “net zero” promises will indeed turn out to be the “crap zero” realities that some cynics expect.

The good news is that the pandemic has taught us that vast amounts of money can be mobilized when an emergency demands it. Globally, according to the 2020 Gap Report, Covid-related government fiscal spending reached approximately $12 trillion by December 2020, about 14 percent of the 2020 Gross World Product. The bad news is that a lot of this money went to supporting fossil energy companies. As of February 10, 2021, the G20 had directed more than $242 billion to high-carbon activities and fossil energy, compared to $189 billion for renewables and low-carbon activities. The United States under the Trump administration directed over $70 billion to high-carbon activities.

To salvage the climate future will require a new internationalism—and a shared mobilization in which the United States does its fair share, especially by helping developing countries limit their own emissions. Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal proposal, which addressed this need, asserted that a US fair share would be 161 percent, including a 71 percent drop in domestic emissions. Sanders further proposed that the United States provide $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund for the period from 2020 to 2030—about $20 billion a year.

Compared to the $2 trillion that President Biden intends to spend on domestic climate action over the next four years, $200 billion is not a lot of money. But it would absolutely be a game-changer that would demonstrate real American leadership in the global climate struggle.

As the United States reenters the Paris circle, a bit of reflection is in order. Scientists are terrified, and delivering messages that are difficult to hear, particularly now, when we have good reasons to doubt that our political systems will rise to the challenge. Despair, with the complacency it can breed, is a real danger. It’s easy to see why many people believe the accord’s weaknesses is more evidence of the larger institutional impotence.

In fact, though, the Paris Agreement can work, but the first crucial steps must be completed, soon. This year will bring the new emission reductions pledges. Finance breakthroughs will also have to come, and we have to face the new science (which, by the way, is not all dark). Then, in 2023, there will be the “global stock take,” in which the world’s nations will be asked if they’ve done enough.

Time to get to work.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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