Reminder: The US will leave the Paris climate agreement this week

By Umair Irfan

Negotiators celebrate the conclusion of the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris, France, in 2015.
The US is set to exit the 2015 Paris climate agreement this week. But it could rejoin depending on the outcome of the presidential election.
Jonathan Raa/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The United States will leave the Paris climate agreement on Wednesday regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, making the US the only country in the world to back out of the accord. But who wins the White House on November 3 will be the far bigger determinant of the future of international action on climate change.

Pulling out of the accord was one of Donald Trump’s signature campaign promises in 2016. He announced on June 1, 2017, that the US would begin the exit process. But because of the way the agreement works, the US is not able to officially withdraw from the accord until this week, the day after the election.

If Trump wins, the US will stay that course and watch the world coordinate action on climate change from the sidelines. The US will not be subject to the terms of the agreement, and it will play no role in shaping it from here on out — where emissions reduction targets should be, what counts as a valid way to reduce emissions, helping lower-income countries adapt to climate change, what environmental rules should govern trade, and so on.

But former Vice President Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the accord “on day one” if he becomes president.

This potential climate policy whiplash for the US — which helped convene the Paris agreement in the first place, then started backing out, and may now jump back in — means that the US will have to make up for lost time and rebuild trust with other countries. It’s not even the first time the US has pulled a 180-degree turn on a major international climate agreement.

The US, as the wealthiest country in the world and the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, has an outsize responsibility in international climate negotiations. Where the US goes, many others follow.

Yet despite the US backing out of the Paris accord, other parts of the world have recently stepped up their ambitions on climate change, from the European Union, the world’s largest economic bloc, to China, currently the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Even with the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some cases because of it, countries like South Korea, France, and Italy are taking more aggressive action to cut greenhouse gases.

However, some of the more ambitious targets under the Paris agreement — like keeping average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — are nearly out of reach unless drastic action from governments and consumers is taken immediately. So despite the waffling from the US, it will still have a place at the table. But there are still some things the US needs to do before it can take a seat.

The Paris climate agreement has been struggling

It took the world decades of stops and false starts to come up with the Paris climate agreement, and it remains the most potent international framework to get countries to reduce their contributions to global warming. However, it has critical weaknesses that have threatened to collapse it completely.

In 2015, just about every country in the world convened in Paris and agreed to a few simple but hard-fought principles: The climate is changing due to human activity, the world should aim to limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius this century compared to preindustrial levels, every country has an obligation to act, but every country gets to set their own goals.

The terms of the climate agreement are voluntary and don’t carry the force of law (hence “Paris agreement” or “Paris accord,” and not “Paris treaty,” which would be legally binding). But the terms are structured in a way that creates a lot of incentives to encourage countries to do more to limit their emissions of heat-trapping gases, and it contains some prods for countries that are slower to act.

It was clear from the outset that what countries initially planned to do to cut greenhouse gases wouldn’t be enough to stay below 2°C, let alone hit an even more aggressive target under the agreement of limiting warming to less than 1.5°C. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world would have to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half from current levels by 2030, reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and then start pulling carbon dioxide back out of the air thereafter in order to meet the 1.5°C benchmark.

But the idea of the Paris agreement was to get everyone to agree to a common set of goals and strengthen their commitments over time, with periodic international meetings to see where everyone stands and to hammer out the tedious rules of how to gauge progress. So far, this hasn’t been enough to keep the world on track to meet the goals of the accord.

And the subsequent meetings of the parties to the Paris agreement over the past few years have proven to be disappointments anyway, with few countries willing to step up their targets and ongoing disputes about critical details of the accord. This year’s meeting, which was scheduled to be held in Glasgow in the United Kingdom, has been postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.

Since the exit process takes years, the US under President Trump has been sending delegations to these meetings, as the US remains a party to the agreement. But other negotiating teams have accused the US of making it harder to resolve thorny issues like how countries afflicted by the consequences of climate change should be compensated, although the US was aiming to exit the Paris accord altogether. Members of the US delegation have even used the meetings to promote the use of coal.

US President Donald Trump announces his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accords in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2017.
President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the US would leave the Paris climate agreement, but the US will not officially exit until this week.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration has argued that the terms of the Paris agreement demanded too much of the US and too little of countries like China that have set anemic goals, even though the agreement allows countries to set their own targets.

“Over the last 15 years, U.S. emissions have decreased while China’s have continued to increase,” said a State Department spokesperson in an email. “China claims status as a ‘developing country’ to avoid shouldering its fair share of responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—even though its per capita CO2 emissions have reached the level of many high-income countries.”

All the while, the planet has continued to heat up. Though global greenhouse gas emissions were down slightly this year due to the pandemic, the overall trend is still upward and doesn’t show any signs of reversing. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have continued to set new records every year.

Graph showing total global greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenhouse gas emissions have slowed their rate of increase, but not reversed.
Our World in Data

The US can get back into the Paris agreement pretty easily, but domestic politics will still be a big hurdle

Getting back into the Paris accord, on paper, would pretty simple for Biden if he wins the election. According to Andrew Light, a former senior climate advisor at the State Department under President Obama, all Biden would have to do is send a notice to the United Nations as soon as he gets into office stating that the United States intends to get back in the agreement. Then 30 days later, the US is back in.

“The more difficult part is that every party to the Paris agreement has to have a commitment that’s in good standing,” Light said. The initial commitment the US made in 2015, known as its nationally determined contribution, aimed to get the US to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent below its emissions in 2005 by the year 2025.

But by 2020, countries are expected to come up with targets aimed at 2030, and the US is behind on putting its goals together. “By Inauguration Day, the US is sort of technically overdue on this,” Light said.

Former U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden speaks during a White House Clean Energy Investment Summit June 16, 2015.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris climate agreement if elected, alongside enacting a suite of climate change policies.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The US will likely have to meet some of its previous commitments too. In 2014, the US pledged to contribute $3 billion to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, a program that helps developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. But under Trump, the US declined to fulfill its remaining $2 billion contribution.

While other parties to the Paris agreement will likely cut the US some slack, it does mean the US needs to come up with a more ambitious goal than what it has already and start laying out the details for how it will get there.

Trump has no plan to deal with climate change, but Biden has put forth an ambitious set of proposals to get the United States to a 100 percent clean energy economy by 2050. Some of these plans can be enacted from the White House, but the more aggressive tactics, like $1.7 trillion in federal investment to drive action on climate change, would require Congress’s approval.

That means those in control of the House and Senate will determine just how much Biden can enact his agenda domestically, which in turn will constrain what he can bring to the table internationally.

For Biden, it may be a familiar situation. The economic turmoil he would inherit in January 2021 would likely echo what he saw in January 2009 as vice president, with an ongoing recession and huge job losses. The Covid-19 pandemic has similarly triggered an economic slowdown and a massive surge in unemployment, so there may be appetite for a stimulus package with a focus on climate change in the new Congress.

What’s different this time around is that there is a much stronger grassroots activist movement for action on climate change than there was in 2009. There’s also a coalition of city, state, and business leaders in the US who have remained committed to limiting climate change under the Trump administration despite the impending US exit from the Paris agreement.

“The thing that Biden has that really is his ace on this is the fact that non-federal actors in the US have just been going all out since Trump announced the US is pulling out of Paris,” Light said. “That will be a much more secure foundation, and a well-coordinated foundation, for Biden to work with, way more than Obama had in 2009.”

The rest of the world is moving ahead on climate change, with or without the US

While the US has wavered in its commitment to fighting climate change, other countries have been charging ahead. So if the US were to rejoin the Paris climate agreement under Biden, it would enter an escalating race between the biggest economies on earth.

“The scene is not the same as when the US withdrew three years ago,” said Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation and one of the architects of the Paris agreement. “The US coming back, or not, to the global landscape of climate action will find a different distribution of relations.”

For one thing, the technologies needed to shift to clean energy have made huge strides. Renewable energy is now the largest source of new power generation in the US, and in many markets, it’s competitive with — if not cheaper than — fossil fuels. Similar patterns have been repeating across the world. Meanwhile, major oil companies have been struggling with flat demand and limited new investments. In the US, numerous coal companies have declared bankruptcy and more than 100 gigawatts of coal generation capacity have been slated to shutter in the past decade, despite Trump’s efforts to prop up the industry.

In the international arena, it’s true that some countries have been able to obscure their own tepid climate change plans in the shadow of the pending withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Countries like Brazil, Australia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia have put forward weak commitments and have continued pushing the development and export of fossil fuels.

On the other hand, other nations have decided that fighting climate change will be a key part of their economic strategy in the decades to come.

In September, China made a surprise announcement at the United Nations General Assembly that it’s striving to be carbon-neutral by 2060. While China hasn’t laid out exactly how it plans to meet its goal, researchers have begun chalking out a road map to get China to its targets.

The European Union, meanwhile, has adopted a program called the European Green Deal, which aims to make its 28 member countries carbon-neutral by 2050. Its core elements, such as ensuring a just economic transition for workers in industries likely to be left behind in the shift to clean energy, are actually modeled on the Green New Deal proposal in the US. Crucially, Europe’s program calls for a border adjustment carbon tax that could go into effect as soon as 2021. For countries that aren’t doing enough to fight climate change, their goods could face additional tariffs in the EU.

If the United States decided to stay out of the Paris agreement and not step up its commitments, the EU’s new policies could take a big bite out of the US’s roughly $320 billion worth of exports to the bloc.

The EU, China, Japan, and South Korea are also working on their own trade agreements with climate change as a key element.

That means the US stands to be sidelined in a new bloc of international trade if Trump wins reelection. “The stakes are just enormous for what America loses,” Light said.

On the other hand, if Biden wins and rejoins the accord, companies and countries will see that as a cue to pursue more aggressive action on climate change. That will help ensure that US goods can still be sold in other countries that are pursuing tougher targets on climate change.

“In the case of a Biden win, the prospect of a rapid transition to a net-zero economy will be more real to investors, markets, and businesses in the US, as well as outside, because many global companies are US-based,” Tubiana said. “There will be an acceleration of that momentum.”

Still, meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement remains a tall order. It’s one thing to set a goalpost 30 years from today and another to actually start putting plans into action now. Every country will still have to wrestle with its own domestic political problems, and other major countries like India, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, will have to be cajoled into setting more aggressive limits on carbon dioxide. But with the US back on board, the world has a better shot at keeping climate change in check.