How can the return of US in the Paris Climate Agreement become meaningful?

By Dr Gurinder Kaur*

The United States new President Joe Biden on the first day of his term, after being sworn in, requested the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which Guterres accepted on the same day. He also welcomed the United States decision. Responding to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the then United States President Barack Obama said that controlling global warming was the only common and commendable effort by all countries in the world.

But the next the United States President Donald Trump, as soon as he took over the administration, announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate agreement in 2017, saying that this climate agreement was not in the favour of the United States economic growth. It will destabilize the United States economy and cause millions of people to lose their jobs and become unemployed. Thus, on November 4, 2020, the United States withdrew from the agreement during the Trump administration.

Biden’s reversal means that the United States will now rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on February 19,2021, within the 30 days from January 20. The return of the United States in the Paris Climate Agreement has been welcomed by many European countries. Coming back to the Paris Climate Agreement means that the United States will now have to abide the rules and regulations set by the United Nations agreement and fulfill its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

If the Biden administration is really taking the Paris Climate Agreement seriously, it should not start from where the Obama administration left it ,because environmental damage done must be taken into account during the four years of the Trump administration. According to the NOAA, greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in the year 2018 alone have increased by 2.6 per cent. During his tenure,Donald Trump approved a large number of projects which generated more greenhouse gases, such as coal-fired power plants and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The Trump administration dismantled major climate policies and also rolled back more than 100 laws on environmental protection and cut off the financial aid to the environmental protection institutions. In this regard, it is important to know that according to a report of the Union of Concerned Scientists dated August 12,2020, every person in the United States is emitting 16.56 tons of carbon dioxide per year which is the result of lifestyle and consumption habits of the American people.

Countries that emit more greenhouse gases, such as China and India, have also become indifferent as a result of the US withdrawal decision from the Paris Climate Agreement. China, which now emits the largest share (28 per cent)of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, has installed coal-fired power plants and said it would start cutting emissions after 2030, after reaching the peak of economic growth. According to a July 2019 report of Thomson Reuters, India is also planning to increase the coal-fired power generation capacity by 22 per cent between 2018 and 2022. These countries have also shied away from their responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The return of the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement is a commendable step. However, the average global temperature has risen sharply in the last four years due to increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. According to NOAA’s 2020 annual climate report, the seven years from 2014 to 2020 are the hottest years on record. A report of the World Meteorological Organisation titled, “The State of the Global Climate 2020” has revealed that the average temperature rose by 1.2 degree Celsius from January to October , but under the influence of La-Nina, the rise in temperature in November and December was lower than in the other months of the year.

The average temperature rise in 2020 was only 0.02 degree Celsius lower than the hottest year ever in 2016.The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also increased rapidly during 2015-2020.In December 2015 , the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 401.95 ppm(parts per million) which increased to 413.95 ppm in December 2020. Carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas that increases the temperature. Increasing greenhouse gases have raised the average global temperature by 1.00 degree Celsius since the time of the Industrial Revolution. Although the United States administrators do not take climate agreements seriously, the United States is also suffering the brunt of global warming. According to NOAA in 2020, there were 22 major natural disasters in the United States that caused an estimated 95 billion US dollar damage. As many as six of the worst wildfires ever occurred in California in 2020, burning 10.3 million acres of forest to ashes. The blaze was so intense that from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the sky wasted with flames and turned ominous shades , from a brownish orange to blood-red which made headlines around the world.

Wildfire pollution continued to plague the western and the eastern parts of the United States. Record hurricanes this year, numbering 31, also hit the United States hard.Even these days, the United States is experiencing heavy snow and strong cold waves due to the rise of average temperatures in the Arctic region caused by climate change. If the United States pays serious attention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, its return to the Paris Climate Agreement could become a golden opportunity for the United States to offset the damage caused by global warming in the entire world including the United States.

In fact, the United States has never played a commendable role in any of the conferences or protocols that have been held to curb global warming. The country has always failed to deliver on its promises on environmental issues. One president makes a promise and another announces his withdrawal. Let’s take a brief look at this unique behaviour of the United States. At the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, for the first time, all the developed countries of the world agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2000 to their 1990 levels.

The decision was signed and ratified by the United States envoy, but the then President H.W. Bush said that the American way of life is not up for negotiation and refused to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This summit was followed by the Kyoto Protocol in Japan in 1997, which committed that all the developed countries of the world (the United States, Canada, Russian Federation, Japan, all European and other countries) would reduce 5.2 percent greenhouse gases between 2008 and 2012 below 1990 levels. During the agreement, the then Vice-President of the United States Al Gaur weakened the Protocol by downgrading a ‘Clean Development’ compliance fund and advocating carbon market ’ flexibility mechanisms’.

The United States President Bill Clinton signed this weak protocol and promised to implement it in the country, but it was not passed by the Senate of the United States . Four years later , the new president, George W. Bush announced withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Drawing on example of the UnIted States Canada in 2011 and other countries such as Japan ,New Zealand, and Russian Federation in 2012 also refused to abide by the terms of the protocol, further undermining the Kyoto Protocol. The second part of the Kyoto protocol was supposed to begin in 2012,but it ended before then.

As per the Bali Action Plan 2007, the United States representatives opposed the imposition of legal binding on climate related agreements. In view of the United States response to every such conference, in 2009 the European countries at Copenhagen raised concern that the United States was trying to weaken the climate agreement. In 2014, a IPCC report warned of the possibility of natural disasters due to increase in the depth of their impact . A conference was held in Paris ( France ) in 2015 known as ‘Paris Climate Agreement’ to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To achieve the Paris Climate Agreement original objectives all the countries submitted carbon reduction targets ,known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC). These targets outlined each country’s commitments for curbing emissions through 2025 or 2030, including economy-wide carbon-cutting goals. The conference was held during Obama’s presidency and he acknowledged and praised it. Once again ,with change in the United States government, the new President Donald Trump announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and officially country was out of it in November 2020.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is a usual behaviour of the United States, so nothing new in it. It is very important to know how the return of the United States in the Paris Climate Agreement can become meaningful for the country and rest of the world. To this end, the new United States President must increase the greenhouse gas emissions cut as agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement.For reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, it needs guidance from the European countries and New Zealand. The European countries have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 24 per cent between 1990- 2019, while in the United States has increased it instead of reducing. On the other hand, the European countries now plan to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. New Zealand is trying to set a unique example as it has declared a ‘Climate Emergency’ and is working to make the country carbon neutral by 2025. The United States should now equate its emissions of greenhouse gases, at least on par with the European countries (55 per cent cut) on 1990 emissions levels.

However, the United States has so far released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country , so it should cut its emissions far more.In addition , the United States should ensure that the Green Climate Fund as well as the amount of assistance provided to developing and poor countries affected by climate change natural disasters ,be deposited and expeditious efforts should be made to provide these countries with clean technology . The United States administration should also motivate its people to change their lifestyle and consumption habits. Doing so the United States could make a good sense to return to the Paris Climate Agreement.

*Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala

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