Climate Change: The US back in the game under Biden | Daily News

Climate Change: The US back in the game under Biden

US President Donald Trump-US President-elect Joe Biden
US President Donald Trump-US President-elect Joe Biden

On November 4, just a day after the Presidential Election, the United States formally withdrew from the Paris Climate Change Agreement which it had signed in 2015 when Barack Obama was President. In June 2017, Obama’s successor at the White House, Donald Trump, had announced his intention to take the US out of the agreement. But he had to wait for three years to officially give effect to his decision because of the rules governing the pact.

The Climate Change agreement was a consensual pact among 189 nations including Sri Lanka and India to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperatures well below 2.0C (3.6F) and endeavour to limit them to 1.5 C.

The idea was to limit, between the period 2050-2100 (the turn of the century), the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human economic activity so that trees, the soil and the oceans can absorb these emissions naturally. (Scientists are developing artificial systems that do this as well).

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to have a chance of keeping end-of-century warming below 1.5C, global emissions need to reach “net-zero’ around mid-century (2050). This target was chosen to avoid triggering a series of catastrophic climate tipping points that could force people to inhabit only the globe’s far Northern and far Southern latitudes. Many of the ravaging impacts of Climate Change are already felt today: loss of sea ice with the expectation that the Arctic might be ice-free by mid-century; an accelerated sea-level rise; longer and more intense droughts and heat waves; stronger hurricanes and shifts in precipitation patterns. We can already feel changed weather patterns here in Sri Lanka.

Financing of Climate Change

As per the Paris deal, advanced industrialized countries such as the US and UK were to spend a certain amount of money to bring down the use of fossil fuels and also help poorer nations by providing “Climate Finance” to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

The agreement required rich nations to maintain a US$ 100 billion a year funding pledge beyond 2020, and to use that figure as a “floor”, not a ceiling, for further support by 2025. It was pointed out that spending US$ 100 billion per year was only 8% of worldwide declared military spending each year, of which the bulk is spent by developed states. The developing countries were promised US $100 billion a year by 2020, though even this amount was not considered adequate. According to the BBC, many countries, especially the low-lying ones, want the target to be kept at lower than 1.5 C. The low-lying countries such as Maldives face unsustainable sea levels rises due to global warming.

However, the pledges to cut emissions were to be voluntary and not enforceable under international law. This made the agreement inherently weak. The US and Russia were unenthusiastic about the agreement right from the start. The Clinton Administration was unable to secure Senate backing for the earlier Kyoto Protocol of 1997 which applied to advanced countries. The Obama Administration signed the 2015 Paris Accord, but without Senate sanction. It remained without sanction, enabling President Trump to withdraw legally and easily.

Trump’s reasons

Firstly, President Barack Obama’s signing of the treaty without Senate ratification means that the Accord does not obligate the U.S. to follow it internationally or domestically.

The US, which accounts for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, is the only country to have withdrawn from the agreement so far. Hence, its departure is indeed a big blow to the 189 countries which had signed it in 2015, especially to the small islands which face extinction from a rise in sea levels.

Trump has aggressively championed the fossil fuel industry; questioned the basic science of Climate Change; and weakened or rolled back many environmental protections. The US has said it needed to use all energy sources including fossil fuels and maintained that it is doing so in a clean and responsible manner.

President Trump has for long held that the Paris Accord would cripple growth and intrude on American sovereignty. “It is time to put Youngstown, locations within our great country, before Paris,” the New York Times quoted him as saying in 2017 when he announced that the US would withdraw from the Accord.

Trump’s grouse was that under UN regulations, developing countries like India and China had been exempted from emission limits. But he had not taken note of the fact that both India and China had agreed to the emission limitation.

Katie Tubb, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think tank is quoted as saying that if the goal was to reduce global temperatures, it just could not be done on the backs of the industrialized world.

“No matter what you think about global warming, and the nature of it, the pace of it, you have to take these growing economies seriously, and help them. I just did not see Paris getting to that end, in any efficient or constructive manner,” Tubb said.

However, the Tump Administration has not been against measures to control climate change per se. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “We will continue to work with our global partners to enhance resilience to the impacts of climate change and prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Just as we have in the past, the United States will continue to research, innovate, and grow our economy while reducing emissions and extending a helping hand to our friends and partners around the globe.”

But what is feared is that other countries’ willingness to control climate in their drive for industrial development might weaken as a result of US withdrawal. And they might blame the US for that. China, for example, might act tough. The 2017 Trump announcement of withdrawal had already led to a softening of commitment by Australia, Saudi Arabia and Brazil it is said.

However, despite Trump, many American industries are curbing greenhouse emissions on their own and hope to cut emissions by 37% before 2030. It is also worthy of note that despite Trump’s efforts to revive the coal industry, more coal capacity was retired under his Presidency than during Obama’s second term, while renewable energy hit record highs in the US in terms of production and consumption in 2019.

Joe Biden promises

US President-Elect Joe Biden has promised to put the US back into the Paris Agreement on “Day One” after he takes the oaths on January 20 next year. The US could rejoin with just a one-month notice.

Biden has proposed a US$ 1.7 trillion plan to take the US, the world’s second-biggest carbon emitter, to net-zero by 2050.

Niklas Hohne, a climate scientist at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands and a member of a simulation group called Climate Action Tracker, tweeted: “Biden’s climate plan alone could reduce temperature increase in the order of 0.1 degree Celsius. His election could be a make or break point for international climate policy. Every tenth of a degree counts.”

And Biden has overwhelming popular support among Americans on the Climate Change issue. A recent Pew Survey found that more than 80% Americans agree that humans have contributed to climate change. Significantly, a plurality of Republicans also felt that way.

Biden has already appointed a formidable team led by former Secretary of State John Kerry to tackle Climate Change. He has promised to prioritise renewable energy and champion transport powered by electricity. He has vowed to end the controversial practice of fracking for fossil fuels on federal lands. He is expected to take the “executive order” route for certain environmental legislations which may not pass muster in the Congress or Senate. Indeed, the US rejoining the Climate Change effort will be a breath of fresh air for the whole world.