“And just like we need a unified national response to COVID-19, we desperately need a unified national response to the climate crisis because there is a climate crisis.” – Remarks by President Joe Biden Before Signing Executive Actions on Tackling Climate Change, Creating Jobs, and Restoring Scientific Integrity
On February 19, 2021, the international community warmly hailed the United States’ (US) formal rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement, some 107 days after its withdrawal under the previous administration. The Paris Agreement was concluded and adopted on December 12, 2015 by 196 Parties at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris, France. It was the product of many years of efforts, but entered into force in record time on November 4, 2016.
Under the Agreement, parties commit to taking actions to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”, while pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To meet the Paris Agreement’s goals, countries are to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs), outlining their post-2020 climate actions to reduce their national emissions and to adapt to climate change. NDCs are to become progressively more ambitious every five years. However, for developing countries, while financing is needed to achieve these efforts, the gap between mitigation and adaptation needs and available funding remains wide.
This article discusses the significance of the US’ rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. It argues that after taking several steps backward under the previous administration, the US’ recommitment to climate action is a welcomed step forward for increasing ambition in global mitigation efforts. It further posits, however, that nations must make giant leaps in their climate response ambitions to avert the worst case warming scenario. All developed nations should ramp up financing for developing countries’ climate action efforts, especially given the COVID-19 shock wrought on the economies of many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries, including Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
The steps backwards
As a global challenge, climate change requires international cooperation for corrective action to be meaningful. Under the Barack Obama administration, the US was among the parties which negotiated and signed the Paris Agreement under the UNFCCC framework. Then Secretary of State, John Kerry, now President Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy on Climate Change, famously signed the Agreement on the US’ behalf with his granddaughter on his knee. Under the Obama Administration, the US committed under the Paris Agreement to reducing its emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
Even before assuming office officially, President Donald Trump quickly announced plans to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, which he claimed was designed to kill American jobs. The Agreement’s withdrawal clause effectively bars any Party from withdrawing from the Agreement before a three year period from the Agreement’s entry into force for that party had elapsed, and such withdrawal would only take effect one year after.
In the interim, President Trump rolled back or weakened over 100 Obama-era climate and environmental policies and regulations, covering anything from regulating vehicle to power plant emissions to endangered species. He also actively promoted the greater use of coal and other fossil fuels, and in his final days in office, he approved oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
On the five year anniversary of the Agreement’s signing, President Trump ‘honoured’ his campaign pledge and made the US the only country to date to pull out of the pact on November 4, 2020, just two days before the US presidential election. Although US action on climate change at the federal level ceased under the Trump administration, some States whose mayors, Governors and CEOs signed on to the “We’re still in movement” thankfully continued to implement clean energy and climate-friendly reforms.
The steps forwards
The world breathed a collective sigh of relief upon news of President Joe Biden’s election win which, among other things, brought the assurance that the US would once again follow the science that anthropogenic (man-made) climate change was real and urgent global action was needed to avert the looming climate crisis.
On his first day of office, President Biden signed a letter of acceptance of the Paris Agreement. On January 27, 2021, the White House issued a comprehensive executive order drawing attention to the urgency of the climate crisis and making some key decisions, such as the establishment of a National Climate Task Force and a commitment to make climate change both a national and US foreign policy priority. Moreover, by twinning climate action with his economic recovery plan, Biden’s proposed $2 trillion dollar stimulus aims not only to ramp up US climate action to protect the planet, but to create jobs and promote US economic recovery in an environmentally sustainable manner.
The giant leaps needed
President Biden has called for bold climate action and given the four year lapse in federal action, he may have to propose targets which are more ambitious than the Obama-era targets. But he will need congressional support and action if his climate policies are to have any durability as executive actions can only go so far and can be easily overturned by a subsequent president.
Other major polluting nations will also have to step up to the plate. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI) reporting, ten nations account for over 68% of global GHG emissions. China ranks as the world’s largest polluter emiting 26% of global GHGs, followed by the US at 13%, the EU at 7.8% and India at 6.7%. In a TedTalk held on the same day as the US’ rejoining of the Paris Agreement took effect, Special Envoy Kerry called the upcoming COP26 talks to be held in Scotland, UK later this year the “last, great hope”. He also accused other major polluters of not doing enough to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while noting that a global climate summit the administration will host on April 22 (Earth Day) will, inter alia, seek to increase ambition in advance of COP26.
Although the COP26 was postponed from last year due to COVID-19, an ambition summit was held in December 2020 in which several parties pledged net zero targets. China’s President Xi in December 2020 restated China’s commitment to reach peak carbon levels by 2030 but upgraded China’s ambition level by pledging a carbon intensity reduction of over 65% on a 2005 baseline by 2030. Of note was that several SIDS were among those 75 countries which pledged new commitments at the Climate Ambition Summit. Barbados, Fiji, the Maldives and Nauru were among the countries which made net zero-related pledges, according to IISD reporting. The EU has committed to cutting net GHG emissions EU-wide by at least 55% by 2030 with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, while the UK pledged to reduce its GHG emissions at least 68% below 1990 levels by 2030.
But are these efforts ambitious enough? The latest Emissions Gap Report (2020) called the current levels of ambition in countries’ NDCs “seriously inadequate” and would result in an at least 3 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by 2100. It further cautioned that the 7% decline in CO2 emissions in 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will “make no significant difference to long-term climate change”. Moreover, a recent empirical study by Liu & Raftery (2021) found not only that the probability of major polluters meeting their NDCs was low, but that for temperature increases to be less than 2 degrees Celsius, the average rate of decline in emissions would need to increase from the 1% to 1.8% per year.
According to the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2020 was second only to 2016 as the world’s hottest year on record. Large chunks of the glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt, threatening SIDS and coastal communities with increased sea level rise. While SIDS are most at threat from climate change’s adverse impacts, continental States can also be affected. In his speech on the signing of the Executive Order, President Biden referenced the record wildfires in the western US and more powerful hurricanes affecting the US gulf and east coasts. Over the past week, the US state of Texas experienced unbearably cold temperatures due to a severe winter storm, which caused both power and water outages and several deaths.
There is also the other important issue of climate financing to assist developing countries, which often face capacity constraints and limited domestic finance options, in their mitigation and adaptation efforts. At COP15 developed countries committed to mobilise jointly USD 100 billion each year in climate finance by 2020, but financing has fallen short of the target. The US had pledged $3 billion to the fund under the Obama administration, but paid only $1 billion ($500 million in two batches) before he left office. President Trump ordered a stop to the remaining $2 billion pledged to the fund. John Kerry has, however, pledged that US will “make good” on its pledge to the Green Climate Fund.
At the Climate Ambition Summit, several countries, including the UK, made additional climate finance pledges, but these are only useful once they are acted upon. Climate finance is especially important now that many fiscally constrained SIDS, such as those in the Caribbean, have seen dramatic revenue drops because of COVID-19’s impact on their tourism industry. This leaves these governments with limited funds to finance their mitigation and adaptation efforts. This is coupled with the ineligibility of some Caribbean countries, like the Bahamas, Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago, for concessional financing due to their classification as upper middle income or high income economies solely on an income per capita basis.
Redoubling efforts at making climate financing available for developing countries will also be critical for their achievement of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 target. Although SDG 13 speaks specifically to climate action, countries’ achievement of many of the other SDGs, for example, no poverty (SDG 1) and access to clean water (SDG 6), can be jeopardised by insufficient financing for climate action.
Important step forward, giant leaps still needed
In closing, the US’ rejoining of the Paris Agreement is an important step forward for the global climate fight, after taking several steps back under the previous administration. However, as ambition levels in countries’ current NDCs remain woefully inadequate for achieving the Paris Agreement’s objectives and avoiding the worst effects of climate change, all countries must make a giant leap forward to reduce their emissions. Developed countries should also redouble efforts to step up climate financing for developing countries, many of which are now even less financially able to fund their climate action due to the COVID-19 shock.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is an international trade and development specialist. Follow her on Twitter at @Licylaw and read her commentaries on www.caribbeantradelaw.com.