By: Thomas Holst
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.
President-elect Joe Biden announced the United States would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) on the first day he enters office.
What is the PCA and why is it important?
The PCA, signed in 2015 by 189 countries, aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions, thereby keeping global average temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. These actions would forestall rising sea levels and higher frequencies of tropical storms, floods, and droughts.
Each PCA signatory set voluntary targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since terms of the climate agreement are voluntary, they do not carry the force of law. The only binding requirement is accurate reporting by signatories on their GHG reduction efforts.
Figure 1: Country Participation in the Paris Agreement
(As of November 4, 2020)
Source: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
What are the consequences of the U.S. rejoining the PCA after announcing intentions to exit in 2017?
Some PCA signatories will likely doubt the intentions of the U.S. However, upon re-entering the PCA, President-elect Biden has committed to use “every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions alongside the United States.” To achieve that objective, a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate will focus on international issues while a White House climate director will manage domestic policy issues.
Which countries have filled the international climate leadership vacuum since the U.S. took a lower profile in PCA activities?
- China announced during the 2020 United Nations General Assembly their intentions to be carbon-neutral (i.e., net zero greenhouse gas emissions) by 2060.
- The European Union, the de facto PCA leader during the United States’ absence, adopted a European Green Deal program to achieve carbon-neutral status by 2050.
How has the European Union (EU) gained its PCA leadership status?
EU members set climate targets in 2008 with the catchy title “20-20-20 by 2020,” aimed at achieving a 20% share of renewable energy in gross EU energy consumption, a 20% reduction in GHG by 2020 (versus 1990 levels), and a 20% increase in energy efficiency. These targets measure progress over the decade ending in December 2020. The EU is on track to reach its renewable energy and GHG targets. However, reaching the energy efficiency target depends on the EU trimming its primary energy consumption. While this target appeared unreachable in early 2020, the impact of COVID-19 decreasing energy consumption in the transport and industrial sectors may help the EU reach its energy efficiency target. In the new decade, the EU will turn its focus to carbon neutrality, to be achieved by balancing carbon dioxide emissions with carbon sequestration.
By rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, the incoming United States administration will fill a gap in global efforts to achieve a sustainable climate.
Thomas Holst is the senior energy analyst at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.