What the US will commit if it rejoins the Paris Climate Agreement – and why it matters
On Friday, the United States will resume the Paris Agreement, a climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in more than 180 countries around the world. It was originally signed and negotiated in the last few years of the Obama administration, withdrawn by President Trump in 2020, and resumed by President Biden on his first day in office.
The agreement was drawn up at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP21. The treaty was originally signed by 175 countries and included commitments from the world’s leading carbon emitters: China, the US and the European Union. According to the World Resources Institute, 189 parties have joined today, representing 97% of global emissions.
The aim of the agreement is to prevent the global average temperature from warming above a disaster point, which is defined as “well below” an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels. To slow down warming, countries agreed to fund programs and share resources to become climate neutral by 2050.
The agreement stipulates that the parties “aim to reach a global peak in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”. By lowering emissions targets every five years, we aim to decarbonise every nation over time.
Each nation is responsible for setting its own emissions targets. The agreement also includes smaller nations that are not responsible for large emissions, but often feel the biggest effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels.
The lack of prescribed standards makes the Paris Agreement unique. It was specially developed in the light of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which included only 36 countries, set targets and ultimately did not significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
The Paris Agreement’s metric for tracking emissions targets is “Nationally Set Contributions” or NDCs. Each party is asked to prepare successive NDCs that it would like to reach.
The agreement stipulates that the NDC targets change every five years and reflect the “highest possible ambitions” of each country. NDCs are reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Protection and entered in an official public register.
When the US signed the deal in 2016, its first NDC target was to be “in the range” of a macroeconomic decline of 17% below 2005 greenhouse gas levels by 2020. The goal was also a later decline of 9 to 11%. by 2025, which means the US would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% in the first ten years of the Paris Agreement.
Former US special envoy on climate change and President Obama’s chief negotiator for climate change in the Paris Agreement, Todd Stern, told CBS News that it was important at this time for the US to set an ambitious goal and set a good example to other nations.
“Some countries pick a target that is really easy and then pat themselves on the back when they hit it,” said Stern. “We took the opposite approach.”
Stern said the US is “well on its way” to meeting the 2025 target if a Democrat replaced President Obama.
While President Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement sent a negative and confusing message to the international community, Stern said it was climate policy and Trump’s withdrawal of regulations that ultimately impacted US emissions.
Even so, the US is still on track to meet its NDC target, in large part due to COVID-19. The United States saw its greenhouse gas emissions decrease by 9% last year. This is the most significant decrease in its history. This emerges from a joint report by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. However, this shift won’t be permanent as the country will eventually recover from the pandemic.
COVID-19 also caused a delay in the five-year update schedule. COP26, originally planned for November 2020, will now take place in November in Glasgow, Scotland. Stern said the meeting was vital to the United States for two reasons: the country must present new NDC targets and re-establish America as a leader in the fight against the climate crisis.
According to Stern, experts have only agreed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and not 2 degrees in the five years since Paris was introduced.
“The goal posts have moved significantly,” he said, citing new research and an increase in severe weather as the reason for the shift. “Two were really difficult. 1.5 is extremely difficult.”
Because of that, Stern said the US has a big goal to come up with to convince other countries – particularly China, the world’s leading greenhouse gas emissions provider – to do the same.
“They never have an impact unless you walk the path and don’t just speak the conversation. The US needs to create a really rampant NDC target for 2030,” Stern said.