USA’s climate commitment in the Biden era | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 09, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 09, 2020

USA’s climate commitment in the Biden era

As the Democrat Presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the US election, expectations are mounting on several fronts. Action on climate change is one such important area where the USA has consistently weakened its position during the Trump administration. The President-elect Joe Biden had laid out his plan to deal with climate change and create new green jobs during his electoral campaign. Biden also promised that his administration would rejoin the Paris climate agreement. This is a timely and much appreciated pledge.

Indeed, the decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement by the USA has been a blow to the global commitment to save the world from the negative impacts of climate change. On November 4, 2020 the USA officially withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. Earlier in June 2017, President Trump announced this withdrawal on the ground that it was economically harmful for the USA and would take away jobs. However, this claim is not well founded since the other polluting countries are making large investments in green energy and not feeling such negative impacts.

Back in December 2015, during the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris, the climate agreement was adopted by the leaders of 195 countries. Under this accord, countries committed to limit global average warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius.

The significance of the Paris agreement is manifold—environmental, economic, social and political. Scientists have warned time and again that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the world will pass the threshold beyond which global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible. The Paris agreement was a major breakthrough to address this critical problem universally.

Given its importance, COP21 was attended by 150 heads of states, and the involved parties committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that the world can become carbon neutral by the second half of the century. Becoming carbon neutral means zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Countries made specific commitments on the reduction of CO2 emissions by 2025 and 2030. The countries themselves determined how much they would reduce their CO2 emissions by and through what measures. Such promises, known as the intended nationally determined contributions (INDC), were made by 186 countries.

Also, for the first time, the two major emitters, China and the USA, made commitments on reducing their CO2 emissions. The largest emitter of CO2, China, committed to lowering emissions per unit of its GDP by 60 to 65 percent by 2030. The second largest emitter, the USA, committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 emission rates by 2025. Other major polluters such as the European Union, India and Brazil also made commitments to lower their carbon emissions.

The Paris agreement is important because this is the only universal climate accord that the world has at present. The previous global commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 by the UNFCCC, expires in 2020. So it was crucial that the governments reach a new deal that would determine the future of carbon emissions after 2020.

The USA leaving the Paris climate deal implies that the USA will continue to emit more CO2 while other countries cut down on their emissions to fulfil the commitment to reducing global temperatures. This will hamper global efforts towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, the USA's share in global greenhouse gas emission is about 13.8 percent while China, the EU and India's shares are about 29.3 percent, 9.6 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively. So other countries are not in a position to take more responsibility in sharing the burden of reducing CO2 further to meet the Paris targets.

Another important agenda of COP21 was to increase the contribution to the Green Climate Fund (GFC), which was set up in 2010 during COP16. The GFC has a goal to raise USD 100 billion a year by 2020. The Paris agreement spelt out that the developed countries should take the lead in supplying finance, and "climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts". In other words, the Fund should grow over time.

Unfortunately, contributions to the GFC have been very slow till now. As of July 2020, only a total of USD10.3 billion has been pledged, of which USD 8.24 billion has been confirmed. The former US President Barack Obama had committed that the USA would contribute USD 3 billion to the GFC. With the withdrawal of the USA from the climate deal, the prospect of meeting the green fund targets have been made more difficult. This will also affect the availability of funds for the poor countries that are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These include the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and African countries. Bangladesh is a case in point. We are a victim of CO2 emissions by developed countries and need their support to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The withdrawal will not only have implications for the world but also for the US economy itself. At present, the USA is the only UNFCCC member which is not a party to the accord. As the USA ceases to be part of the Paris agreement, several countries are engaged in meeting their Paris pledges. They are working towards carbon neutrality and moving away from fossil fuel-based development.

China has set a bold target of economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2060. It is investing heavily on low carbon energy. The EU has announced its Green Deal, under which it aims to become carbon neutral by 2050. It also wants to reduce its CO2 emissions by more than half by 2030. The EU President has committed to dedicating USD 1.1 trillion for climate investment over the next decade. Two other Asian countries, Japan and South Korea, have also expressed their commitments to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Of course, many countries have not spelt out clearly how they would implement their pledges to be carbon neutral. However, their investment plans in clean energy technologies will bring the cost of clean energy down and improve efficiency. Thus, the USA will lose its competitiveness when all the other countries reduce their dependency on fossil fuel and adopt clean technology. Therefore, the Paris climate agreement also has economic significance for the USA and other countries.

Joe Biden has committed to assume leadership by fulfilling the USA's own commitments and by rallying other countries to meet their climate targets. His pledges to integrate climate change initiatives into US foreign policy, national security strategies and trade arrangements are groundbreaking. The world eagerly awaits to see these commitments turn into action.


Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of her organisation.

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