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Biden intends to rejoin the Paris Agreement, but climate activists say that's not enough

David Knowles
·Editor
·8-min read

One of President-elect Joe Biden’s first acts after being sworn in on Jan. 20 will be to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, a nonbinding pact signed by nearly 200 nations that, at President Trump’s direction, the U.S. exited on Nov. 4.

Since Biden has pledged to “take drastic action right now” to address climate change, the question remains whether he and newly appointed special climate envoy John Kerry will seek to strengthen the Paris Agreement commitments agreed to by the Obama administration — which Republicans say are already too tough and will hobble the U.S. economy.

Yet international climate change advocates are already pressuring the new administration to think bigger on cutting emissions.

“The U.S. rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement is just the first step, but in order for Biden to meet the scale of the climate crisis, we must see the U.S. commit to great ambitions to reduce carbon emissions, phase out fossil fuels, and bring forward a carbon neutral economy powered on renewables,” Thanu Yakupitiyage, U.S. communications director at 350.org, told Yahoo News in a written statement. “The Biden-Harris Administration have an enormous opportunity to be a leader on climate and we will be pushing them to not only keep their promises, but go beyond.”

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA - DECEMBER 06: Democratic presidential candidate former U.S. Vice president Joe Biden (L) campaigns with former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (R) December 6, 2019 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Kerry announced his endorsement of Biden yesterday with the Iowa caucuses less than two months away. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Then-candidate Joe Biden campaigns with John Kerry in Iowa on Dec. 6, 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In 2015, Kerry, as secretary of state, played a key role in negotiating the framework of the Paris Agreement. Under it, the Obama administration set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. But the administration never submitted a plan for the reductions for approval by Congress. It also agreed to donate $3 billion — $1 billion of which has already been paid — to help developing nations cut carbon emissions.

The U.S. is currently on track to lower emissions by 20 to 27 percent by 2025, according to an analysis by the Rhodium Group, a New York City-based think tank on global issues. In part, that’s thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, which has dampened economic activity and travel worldwide. In the U.S., carbon emissions are expected to fall nearly 10 percent this year, but they are expected to rebound sharply when the economy returns to normal. In other words, 2020 has been something of an anomaly.

After being introduced last week as the nation’s first-ever climate czar, Kerry said Biden was “right to recognize that Paris alone is not enough” to combat global warming. Indeed, Biden has a separate $2 trillion climate plan that aims to make the U.S. carbon-neutral — meaning no net additions to atmospheric carbon dioxide — by 2050. To be on track to achieve that goal, the U.S. will need to cut emissions by 43 percent over the next decade, the Rhodium Group estimates.

The U.S. is not alone in laying out ambitious targets. The European Union, which has already reduced emissions by 24 percent, has also set a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. China, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, has released a plan to become carbon-neutral by 2060.

After rising by roughly 3 percent in 2018, U.S. carbon emissions fell by 2 percent in 2019 thanks to the continued decline in power generated by coal and a rise in the use of natural gas and renewables. Still, last year the U.S. lagged behind its international commitments set forth in the Paris Agreement.

Experts believe that once economic activity returns to normal following the pandemic, federal action will be needed to keep the country on track. But with the economy still struggling amid record job losses, it is unclear how many Republican lawmakers share Trump’s view about the Paris accord.

President-elect Joe Biden's climate plan aims to have the United States be carbon neutral by 2050. (REUTERS/Stringer)
President-elect Biden's climate plan aims to have the United States be carbon-neutral by 2050. (Reuters/Stringer)

“The Paris Agreement handicaps the United States economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense,” Trump, a longtime climate change denier, said on June 1, 2017, when he announced that the U.S. would become the only nation to exit the pact.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was one of those who encouraged Trump to ditch the accord.

“We simply cannot afford an agreement that puts thousands of Americans out of work, increases their energy costs and devastates our core industries,” Cruz wrote in an op-ed for CNN.

But climate activists say this logic is rooted in a bygone era.

“I think many people in the Republican Party are stuck in 1992. They don’t recognize that economic recovery and action on climate not only aren’t opposing forces, but actually they go hand in hand,” Ben Wessel, executive director for NextGen America, told Yahoo News. “The idea about ‘Building Back Better’ means exactly that, and as we resurge from the COVID-caused recession, it can be done in a way that reduces emissions at the same time.”

Biden and Kerry seek to make the U.S. the leader in the transition to renewable sources of energy without hurting the economy.

“Failure is not an option. Succeeding together means tapping into the best of American ingenuity and creativity and diplomacy, from brain power to alternative energy power,” Kerry said last week.

Reentering the Paris Agreement can be done in 30 days once Biden takes office, but the big test of the new administration’s intentions will come next November, when the signatories to the Paris Agreement are scheduled to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to submit revised targets for the year 2030.

For environmental groups like Greenpeace, Glasgow is another opportunity for the U.S. to strengthen the targets.

The United States will re-enter the Paris Agreement in the Biden administration. REUTERS/Susana Vera
The United States will reenter the Paris Agreement in the Biden administration. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

“Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, which Kerry signed on behalf of the U.S. in 2016, should be the baseline for Biden’s climate ambition, not the ceiling,” Greenpeace’s climate campaign director Janet Redman told Yahoo News in an emailed statement. “We must start the managed transition away from fossil fuels now and use our country’s place as a global leader to work with countries around the world to do so responsibly.”

To be sure, the coronavirus has helped push the climate crisis out of the global spotlight. And in what can be said to be a faint and likely short-lived silver lining of a pandemic that has killed more than 1.4 million people worldwide, global emissions are on track to fall by 8.8 percent in 2020. But a study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research also found that when lockdown measures were lifted, nearly all countries resumed emitting carbon dioxide at previous levels.

“While the CO2 drop is unprecedented, decreases of human activities cannot be the answer,” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a co-author of the study, told Science Daily. “Instead we need structural and transformational changes in our energy production and consumption systems. Individual behavior is certainly important, but what we need to focus on is reducing the carbon intensity of our global economy.”

A return to normal would be devastating for the planet. According to Climate Analytics, if every nation that signed the Paris Agreement met its initial commitments, average global temperatures would still likely warm 3 degrees Celsius, double the increase that experts warn will cause significant sea level rise, population displacement, food insecurity and a loss of between 70 and 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs.

That means that revising those goals is essential. With the exception of Syria and Nicaragua, every country in the world eventually signed on to the Paris Agreement, which set a goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. While the accord laid out a basic framework for the adoption of renewable sources of energy, each of the countries that signed it was tasked with coming up with its own plan to achieve that goal.

John Kerry (right) has been tapped to be the Biden administration's special envoy for climate. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)
John Kerry has been tapped to be the Biden administration's special envoy for climate. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the world has warmed an average of 1 degree Celsius, with the bulk of that change occurring in the last few decades. A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperatures appeared all but inevitable, concluding that the targets laid out by individual nations in the Paris Agreement would not be sufficient to keep temperatures from hitting that marker.

“It’s a line in the sand, and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” Deborah Roberts, a co-chair on the IPCC’s working group on impacts, said of the 2018 report. “This is the largest clarion bell from the science community, and I hope it mobilizes people and dents the mood of complacency.”

A year later, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged a gathering of nations in the United Arab Emirates to stop building new coal plants, cut emissions by 45 percent over the next decade and begin the immediate transition away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.

“It is plain to me that we have no time to lose,” Guterres said. “Sadly, it is not yet plain to all the decision makers that run our world.”

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