Explained: US and climate, after Trump

President-elect Biden has said the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement, from which the Trump administration had exited. What is the agreement? What challenges will the US face in undoing Trump’s climate legacy?

The annual climate change conference was in session in Marrakesh, Morocco, when results of the 2016 US Presidential election came in. The victory of Donald Trump, surprising at the time, came as a shock to a majority of the participants at the conference. Some of the veteran climate activists, men and women who had worked for years to make a global agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions a reality, were unable to hold their tears.

On his campaign trail, Trump had described climate change as a “hoax”, and had promised to walk out of the landmark Paris Agreement that had been finalised just a year earlier. Trump delivered on his promise within six months of his presidency. Many of his other decisions during the presidency, on coal and clean energy, were also seen to be deeply detrimental to the climate objectives. With Trump set to make an exit from the White House on January 20 next year, the part of his legacy to be undone first is his climate policy. President-elect Joe Biden has publicly stated that the United States would seek to rejoin the Paris Agreement as soon as he assumes office, possibly the same day.

What is the Paris Agreement, and what was to be the US role?

The 2015 Paris Agreement seeks to keep the rise in global temperatures to within 2°C compared to pre-industrial times, a target that cannot possibly be achieved without the active participation of the United States. The US still is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after China.

The US, under Barack Obama, had promised to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% by 2030, compared to a 2005 baseline, as part of its commitment to the Paris Agreement. The US emissions were around their peak in 2005, with more than seven billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent being emitted. In the absence of any targeted reduction, the emissions have come down only marginally since then. In 2018, the last year for which emissions data is available, the US had emitted more than 6.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent.
The Paris Agreement target meant that the US would have had to reduce its emissions by at least 1.5 billion tonnes in the next one decade, and hopefully more after that. But since it walked out of the Paris Agreement, it is currently under no obligation to achieve this target. This seriously undermines the ability of the Paris Agreement to meet its objective.

But what is even more crucial is the ability of the US to mobilise climate funds, particularly from private corporations, which is key to achieving the 2°C target. Hundreds of billions of dollars — some estimates put these figures at trillions of dollars — in climate finance is required every year to enable the transitions towards a low-carbon economy. The absence of the US as a key facilitator from this process has been a huge setback.

What was the impact of the Trump administration’s moves on issues relating to climate?

It was not that the US under Trump only turned itself away from the Paris Agreement commitments. Several of the other decisions that Trump took as President, ostensibly to promote domestic jobs and spur economic activity, were seen as directly promoting the fossil-fuel industry, which would result in an increase in emissions. These included reversing a 2015 order mandating the US federal government agencies to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in ten years, compared to 2008 levels.

The New York Times recently published a list of over 100 decisions of the Trump administration that weakened existing environmental laws, and eased emissions restrictions on industry.

The US had played a pivotal role in the finalisation of the Paris Agreement, as it did not like the Kyoto Protocol, the previous international climate arrangement, and had never become part of it. Even the Paris Agreement was very delicately balanced. There are several issues regarding its implementation that are still not settled. The US decisions, coming as they did when Paris Agreement was barely managing to stand on its own, emerged as a major threat to the climate objectives.

“The biggest damage President Donald Trump did to the fight against climate change was to remove the trust between major economies. The Paris Agreement had carefully created the conditions for slowly rebuilding trust and was resting on foundations that needed strengthening. Instead, Trump weakened and removed those foundations,” said Arunabha Ghosh, who heads the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

“And he re-injected the denial of science into the public discourse on climate change,” Ghosh said.

What happens now?

With Biden assuming the Presidency, the US is expected to go through another round of policy reversals on climate change. A return to Paris Agreement is almost certain. Shortly after his victory became clear on November 4, Biden announced that his administration would rejoin the Paris Agreement “in exactly 77 days”, a reference to his date of inauguration, January 20.

Unlike the process of exiting the Paris Agreement, which takes a year to formalise, the rejoining is not going to take long. Interestingly, the US exit from the Paris Agreement had become formal the same day that Biden emerged victorious.

“Assuming that Joe Biden sends a letter… stating that the US is rejoining the Paris Agreement on January 20, the rejoining would automatically become effective 30 days after that. No further US or international approvals are required. The United States would later need to submit a revised National Determined Contribution (a new climate action target, like the 26-28 per cent reduction it had earlier promised). That would not need to be done right away,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, said in an email.

How far will rejoining help?

Rejoining the Paris Agreement is the easier part. Biden is likely to have a tougher job in trying to re-establish trust in the United States for its climate actions. “In these past four years, much has happened in the world outside the US. For example, in India, solar electricity is already the cheapest electricity in the market, when the sun is shining. And going by the prices discovered in recent tenders, it seems that the price of round-the-clock renewable electricity will be competitive with the price of electricity in coal in about two years. The United States needs to quickly catch up, and demonstrate its climate leadership through action, and not just through words,” said Ajay Mathur, director general of the Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute.

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