The recent inauguration of President Joe Biden and his subsequent reversal of former President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement has reignited climate change discussions in American politics. On January 22, 2021, President Biden authorized the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement, marking the beginning of what appears to be unprecedented political action in our nation on climate change.
Sometimes referred to as the Conference of the Parties (COP), the Paris Agreement is an international treaty created in 2015 among nearly 200 nations around the world that aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions to or below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial global temperatures. In the last 200 years, humans have rapidly industrialized the global economy, which runs primarily on fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels, such as coal, methane, natural gas, and crude oil for energy has released anomalous amounts of greenhouse gases into the global atmosphere relative to the length of Earth’s history. These emissions collectively have been identified as the cause of human-induced climate change by climate scientists and experts. As a result of emissions, our globe is experiencing an unparalleled rapid increase in atmospheric temperatures.
Image courtesy of OurWorldInData
In December 2015, 196 countries met with one another to acknowledge the scientific evidence of climate change and to come up with a plan to combat rising temperatures and subsequent effects. The agreed upon 1.5-degree Celsius threshold represents the point at which catastrophic effects to our climate will inevitably be experienced. There are several effects likely to occur as we head toward 2100 including an increased risk of flooding in coastal regions due to sea level rise, potential for increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes, and exacerbation of drought and wildfires in dry regions. Furthermore, food scarcity and insecurity may become prominent issues due to changes in marine species temperature distribution. Projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that at the current rate of warming, the 1.5 Celsius threshold will be reached by approximately 2040.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States originally joined the Paris Agreement in September of 2016. Although it wasn’t until two months later, when at least 55 countries accounting for over 50% of global emissions had joined the agreement, that it took effect. In 2017, President Trump announced the US withdrawal from the treaty (although the official tie wasn’t broken until November 4, 2020.) However, President Biden’s swift action on the Paris Agreement has created a window of opportunity for the administration to work on implementing domestic policies that aim to decarbonize the American economy by mid-century.
The Paris Agreement is based on voluntary pledges. Each nation proposes Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or quantifiable domestic targets which are subject to evaluation every five years, beginning in 2023. Using a ratcheting approach, the idea is for nations to continuously increase their commitments over time to meet their objectives. So far, pledges for Nationally Determined Contributions have revealed that China plans to reach net zero emissions by 2060, and Britain and Germany, Europe’s 2 largest emitters, intend to be carbon neutral by 2050. Other countries including Finland and Norway have pledged to reduce emissions to zero by 2035 and 2030, respectively. Even small island nations, including the Bahamas, the Maldives, and the Marshall Islands – countries with nearly negligible levels of emissions compared to industrialized nations – have set the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.
Now that the United States is back at the table, all eyes are on the new administration as to how large of a role the U.S. will play. Previous NDCs for the U.S. indicated a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2025 increasing to approximately an 80% reduction by 2050. Due to the cancellation of the 2020 Conference of the Parties due to Covid-19, we’ll have to wait to see what the Biden administration unveils at COP 26 later this year. As the second largest carbon emitter in the world, our commitment must be unwavering if we are to effectuate actual change.
This Climate Agreement was designed to recognize the differences in the needs of developing and developed countries. Developing, small island nations are already facing and will continue to face the catastrophic effects of climate change. Effects such as: rising sea levels, increased exposure to storm surge via hurricanes, and food insecurity due to ocean temperature changes affecting the spatial distribution of protein-rich marine species. To address this, the treaty established a Green Climate Fund, and nations proposed a total of $100 billion per year to be contributed to developing nations from developed ones.
Some have argued that the Paris Agreement won’t help us solve the climate crisis, for several reasons worth mentioning. The legally nonbinding nature of the NDCs means no sanctions are to be imposed on nations for failing to meet emission reduction objectives. In 2015, the U.S. negotiated for this pledge and review system, as the possibility of legal penalties would certainly cause the treaty to fail to pass through Congress. However, successful international policy negotiations are built on trust. By meeting the set NDCs and following through with transparency requirements, nations can feel confident that each party is willing to make sacrifices for the collective benefit of all. Perhaps in the future it may be beneficial to impose penalties as a deterrent for not meeting NDCs to more effectively reduce emissions should noncompliance impact the Agreement’s objectives.
Additionally, since the initial 2014 mobilization of the Green Climate Fund, only $78.9 billion has been contributed in total thus far, clearly much less than the annual $100 billion proposal. Countries that have already made ambitious contributions include Japan, Sweden, Norway, Finland, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, and France. Clearly, the world’s most egregious emitters – China and the United States – have yet to make the list. With the contribution of financial resources from developed countries, developing countries will more effectively be able to adapt to and mitigate the consequences of climate change.
The reality of climate change is that events have already been set in motion that will lead us to face a harsh and grim future in the coming decades. Meeting the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold by no means changes certain future events from unfolding, and thus far, most nations are not on track to meet their voluntary, Nationally Determined Contributions. That is the truth, and it would be naive to see the United States rejoining the Paris Agreement as the sole means by which the climate crisis can be addressed.
What the agreement does do is create a space for communication, transnationally, to address a large scale, global issue. It allows for negotiations on financial assistance to less developed countries that are already suffering the impacts of climate change, largely at the hands of developed nations. The distribution of costs and benefits must be equitable if progress is to be made. By using a stocktaking approach, nations will be encouraged to meet and increase their NDCs to build trust. Could the Paris Agreement be a pathway forward? Is progress and cooperation not inherent to attain the goals we seek? Is deliberation, conflict, and coordination not the key to success? While originally subject to many conflicts, it took extensive deliberation and even secret meetings behind closed doors to create a policy agreeable to all parties. Change in the policymaking process does not always happen suddenly, it is deliberative and even iterative, continuously calling for review.
The United States’ role as a global leader in the fight against climate change is nothing short of historic. Our nation’s participation is and will continue to be a critical element in altering the trajectory course of humanity. At the very least, the Paris Climate Agreement itself and the United States’ return to negotiations is a symbol of commitment.
To learn about how the Paris Agreement and the United States’ participation in the international treaty may shape society and the economy, stay tuned for our next blog post!
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