Climate Change

From antagonist to protagonist: Is POTUS 46 the climate hero we need

US must cut emissions faster if Paris Agreement is to keep rolling

By Shazneen Cyrus Gazdar
Published: Tuesday 19 January 2021

On January 20, 2021 Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States (POTUS) of America. The Biden-Harris administration on Day 1 are expected to tackle the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis, the economy, racial inequality and climate change.

That’s already a full plate for the next four years. However, the actions of POTUS 46 over the next 10 days will be critical, specifically, the United States of America’s position as a leading climate change protagonist or antagonist.

With Donald John Trump as POTUS 45 over the past four years, the US has definitely played the villain in the global climate change saga, indeed in all four areas outlined.

This author was sitting at the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City’s UN Headquarters as advisor to a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), when the Trump Presidency was announced.

A first-hand account will confirm that it created a sense of whiplash among the diplomats present, Americans included. One remembers the first words by an American diplomat on D-Day, at the then-delayed United Nations Security Council meeting with a “sorry for the delay, as you can imagine, we are not firing on all cylinders”.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has repeatedly stated that he will rejoin the 2015 Paris Agreement on the first day of office. We wait in anticipation.

Considering that there are no more attempts to “storm the Capitol”, the Biden-Harris Administration is set to roll out a series of executive orders as part of its agenda for its first 10 days.

An executive order is a written directive issued by the President. Such orders are not legislation and don’t require the approval of Congress, which also means Congress cannot overturn them.

If the history of the past 4 years is anything to go by, President Biden would have plenty of such executive orders to write to undo the compounding damage done under the Trump Administration. 

True to character, famously, a day after the US elections completed, under the Trump Administration, the US left the Paris climate agreement November 4, 2020, while Biden said the same day that the US would re-join it in 77 days under his administration.

With the power of hindsight, a more decidedly positive innovation in the Paris Agreement is the tougher procedure for withdrawal from the Agreement. Negotiators were very mindful of the trend of climate-conscious US presidents being followed by climate sceptics.

Having spent six years of political capital to bring this minimal agreement about, they wanted to make withdrawal comparably difficult. The maneuvering paid off. As expected, the Agreement was immediately tested by the election of Donald Trump as US president.

Along with this much-awaited executive letter, President Biden would have to write to the UN Secretary-General, asking to rejoin the Paris Agreement. The process takes 30 days.

The Paris Agreement is by no means a water-tight, legally binding agreement that rightfully provides support by the historically polluting developed countries (Annex 1 countries) to the developing and emerging countries (non-Annex I countries).

It is, in fact, a mélange of legal, quasi-legal and explicitly non-legally binding text. Its core achievement was to commit all countries — from the largest polluters to the non-polluters — to regular climate planning and target-setting.

However, considering that we are on a disastrous over 3 degrees Celsius global warming pathway (United Nations Emission Gap Report 2020), it is the best we have got.

Taking charge

Moving forward, with the approach to not to stall and lament on such history, what has Joe Biden got to do to bring forward the US towards limiting global warming to 1.5°C by century end?

On a good day, it is difficult to see a developed country delivering emissions cuts at the speed and scale required. In the Paris Agreement, the repeated references to common but differentiated responsibility throughout the Agreement indicate that developed countries should take on more ambitious climate targets.

The US needs to lead the charge and up their prior nationally determined contribution (NDC) of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels.

There is no legal impetus for the US to scale up their NDC save a sense of responsibility and a wish to make up for the years of neglect to stopping dangerous climate change.

An early protagonist, as a senator from Delaware, of accounting for the US’ historical contribution to GHG, Biden has to bring back a nuanced approach to talking about the now-forgotten ‘common but differentiated responsibility’. He has to take forward the equity dialogue, addressing America’s fair share contribution to limit warming to 1.5°C as required under the Paris Agreement.

The commitment by developed countries to jointly mobilise $100 billion (Rs 7.3 lakh crore) per year by 2020 in support of climate action in developing countries has been central to the climate accords since 2009 and is an important symbol of trust.

However, by 2019, ‘good faith’ is in short supply as the most industrialised countries have in total contributed $79 billion, of which the US has contributed a woeful $1 billion, considering their historical legacy in the global carbon budget.

The Trump Administration’s 2018 budget stated to “eliminate US funding for the Green Climate Fund (GCF) in 2018, in alignment with President Trump’s promise to cease payments to the United Nations’ climate change programmes.”

Joe Biden, in fact, needs to revive funding to the GCF aimed to catalyse a flow of climate finance to invest in low-emission and climate-resilient development, driving a paradigm shift in the global response to climate change.

Finally, and by no means the least, the US needs to set long term strategies ie set Net Zero targets to limit global warming to the prescribed maximum of 1.5°C.

Therefore, the preservation of the Paris Agreement beyond 2020 will require the US to go beyond just rejoining the Agreement; it requires accelerated domestic emissions reduction to compensate for decades of inaction. Joe Biden has his work cut out.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.