Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, the United States will officially be out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement on Nov. 4, marking a disappointing milestone in the international effort to stop global warming.
Climate experts say that, if the world's biggest historic greenhouse gas polluter won't slash emissions, there's little hope of meeting the Paris target of averting catastrophic global warming.
After sending a letter to the United Nations Secretary General, the United States would once again become a party to the Paris Agreement 30 days later, said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. Around the same time, the U.S. would also need to submit a new national emissions reduction pledge, he added.
And if it's backed up with ambitious domestic climate policies, a green recovery from the pandemic, support from Congress and a renewed push for international collaboration on various climate initiatives, the U.S. reentry could help reinvigorate worldwide efforts to transition to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.
The U.S. could definitely regain a leadership role after regaining trust and credibility, said Andrew Light, a former State Department climate negotiator who worked on the Paris deal and is now a George Mason University professor of philosophy, public policy and atmospheric sciences.
"Biden has said that climate change will move to the center of U.S. foreign policy, and that will have to be a White House priority, to make sure all our aid programs are oriented in that direction," he said.
The Paris Accord: U.S. Negotiation and Withdrawal
The Nov. 4 withdrawal date isn't directly linked to the U.S. election. It was determined by the intricate timing mechanisms of the international climate pact, which became effective on Nov. 4, 2016, after 55 countries, responsible for at least 55 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, had formally ratified the agreement.
The membership rules specified that the first opportunity to initiate a formal withdrawal would be three years after the effective date, which worked out to be Nov. 4, 2019. That's the day the Trump administration's official withdrawal notice was submitted to the United Nations by the State Department. That notice, in turn, becomes effective one year later, which happens to fall on the day after the U.S. election.
The agreement is flexible enough to enable some U.S. participation, including through America's Pledge on Climate, a group of cities, states, universities and businesses that banded together following Trump's withdrawal to help meet the nation's Paris climate goals. But the U.S. would no longer have a formal government team at the climate talks, or a vote when decisions are made.
The Paris agreement aims to limit global warming to under 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and as close to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit as possible by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.
Studies show the initial pledges made in the last few years are not sufficient to reach the temperature-capping target, and 2020 was supposed to be the year that countries would announce more ambitious targets for lowering emissions.
The U.S. played a major part in shaping key sections of the agreement, including an emphasis on monitoring and verification, said Susanne Dröge, a policy analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
The agreement also aims to help member countries adapt to adverse climate change effects like droughts and extreme storms through financing, including a flow of money, through the Green Climate Fund, from high-emitting developed countries to developing countries with smaller carbon footprints that are most vulnerable to global warming impacts.
Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. pledged $3 billion to the fund in 2014 and had paid $1 billion by the end of Obama's term, but Trump damaged the financing deal when he reneged on the remaining $2 billion, undermining American credibility with developing countries trying to transition to sustainable low-carbon economies.
Even with that fund, the concept of compensating developing countries for climate damages was left "very, very vague," reflecting U.S. reluctance to take responsibility for the harm its emissions have caused, Dröge added.
In its totality, the Paris agreement is completely voluntary, depending on peer pressure and a friendly competitive environment to increase the ambitions for climate action. Each country makes independent pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to transparently report on efforts to mitigate global warming.
The negotiations are on a pandemic hold this year, with some negotiations continuing in the background. Both the European Union and China, which account for about 38 percent of total global emissions, have announced deeper emissions cuts than their initial pledges under the agreement.
As disturbing as Trump's withdrawal was to some, it wasn't game-over for U.S. climate policy, said Light. Emissions dropped slightly even as U.S. participation in the climate talks waned, mainly because of the rapid decline of coal-burning for energy, a trend that Trump likely couldn't stop in a second term and that would probably accelerate under Biden.
Also significant, he said, are the combined carbon-cutting efforts of the states, cities, businesses and universities that are part of America's Pledge. Together, those entities would be the second biggest in the world and account for 51 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so their actions affect the global emissions trajectory, he said.
The announced and planned carbon cutting by that coalition could help the U.S. reach a 25 percent cut in emissions by 2030, even with pushback from the federal government, he said. And moderate federal support for those efforts could help the U.S. achieve a 50 percent reduction by 2050. The coalition also contributed to the new Zero Carbon Action Plan, released Oct. 27, that could be a roadmap for getting to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Biden Needs a New Domestic Plan
If Biden is elected, Dröge said she would expect re-entry into the Paris agreement quickly, as promised, but there are a few challenges. For one thing, the initial U.S. emissions reduction pledge toward the agreement was closely tied to President Obama's 2013 climate action plan, which included ambitious national plans for reducing carbon emissions from coal power plants and vehicle tailpipes, both of which Trump has scrapped. Environmental interests and several state governments are challenging his rollbacks in the federal courts.
"The U.S. dominated the international agreement so it would be in sync with U.S. domestic policies, and now those policies are not in place," she said.
Reinstating the federal emissions standards proposed for cars and trucks would be a critical part of that, since vehicle emissions have passed the power sector as the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S., according to the most recent annual report by America's Pledge on Climate. Re-tightening federal controls on methane emissions from oil and gas production that the Trump administration loosened would also help drive deeper emissions cuts.
Developing a new national pledge to control greenhouse gas emissions could be the trickiest part of rejoining the agreement, like trying to jump on board a moving train. With recent promises to make deeper emissions cuts and accelerate the pace toward a carbon-neutral world economy by 2050, the European Union and China are now driving the train, while the U.S., with no national strategy to reduce fossil fuel use, isn't even along for the ride.
In crafting a new national plan for emissions reductions, Biden should carefully consider his first steps rather than just rushing back into the Paris agreement to make a political statement, said Reimund Schwarze, a climate economist with the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research in Germany.
Having a robust national emissions plan in place first would make the reentry more credible, and waiting a few months to line up the pieces would make no big difference to the international process, said Schwarze, who tracks the climate talks as an expert observer.
Biden could use that time to get Congressional support for rejoining the Paris agreement, which could make it harder for a future administration to pull out again. "He could even bring the U.S. back to a leadership role, but you need a strategy to become a leader," he said.
Re-establishing the authority of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases should be an early step in Biden's climate strategy, said Dröge. If Biden can integrate a plan for reducing emissions with pandemic recovery, shore up the EPA and get Congress on board, she said, a quick turnaround that would benefit global climate policy is within reach.
Light, the former U.S. climate negotiator, said Biden must show the American people that the Paris pact is in the U.S. interest. That includes critics on the left who say the Paris agreement is not enough to avert the worst of the climate crisis.
But this must be accompanied, he said, by two additional domestic policy thrusts—addressing environmental justice issues, and ensuring a just economic transition for communities that have economically relied on fossil fuel extraction.
Biden's International Challenge
Internationally, Biden probably needs to come to the next round of global climate talks, in November 2021 in Glasgow, with a substantial climate action package to regain a strong position in the negotiations, Light said.
The U.S. also needs to re-engage with other climate important climate efforts that have been undermined by the Trump administration the past four years. That includes ratifying the Kigali Amendment to cut hydrofluorocarbon emissions, climate pollutants that are more potent than carbon dioxide over the short term, he said. And Biden should renew its participation in the Arctic Council's efforts to cut methane and black carbon pollution, which are accelerating the dangerous meltdown of the high north.
To prioritize global climate policies, Biden should organize the White House and other relevant agencies "in ways that embed climate considerations in U.S. foreign policy and national security," Susan Biniaz, a former top climate negotiator for the U.S., wrote in a blog post for the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law where she is a non-resident senior fellow.
Reinstating the State Department's special climate envoy position and appointing climate experts in "non-traditional places" would resonate internationally as symbolic and substantive steps, she wrote.
Reorienting the government in such a fashion could trigger a beneficial competition with China, a green race to the top, with "a big pull effect on world markets," said Dröge. "It would be a big signal to the world that the U.S. is serious about this and could help reestablish some of the confidence that has been lost. But it will take some time for other countries to believe the U.S. is on board again."
One way to win back global credibility, she added, would be to reestablish the U.S. commitment to the Green Climate Fund, set up to help developing countries cope with climate impacts. It's not clear where that money would come from, given the budget crunch resulting from the pandemic.
Biden has already promised to convene a global green recovery summit with a focus on integrating climate action into economic stimulus measures, Light said. Many other countries are already doing that, leaving the U.S. well behind the curve.
"He has to show that the U.S. is ready to support other countries, and then revive and reorient the development finance institutions, which are investment generators, get the multilateral development banks on board and do what European banks have started doing, getting carbon off the balance sheets," he said.
"Other countries are seriously in jeopardy because of climate change. They are more vulnerable because they don't have the resources to adapt," he said. "We have traditional security interests all over the world. If the U.S. is not seen as an ally, if we don't help them, others will, and they will be seen as more favored allies."