Analysis: The United States has officially left the Paris Agreement, but New Zealand experts and stakeholders are keen to see President-elect Joe Biden rejoin, Marc Daalder reports

Millions of Americans fixated on the slow counting of ballots in the country’s presidential election on Tuesday night local time may not have noticed the clock tick over to midnight. Once it had, however, the United States had officially exited the Paris Agreement.

The landmark global pact to reduce emissions and coordinate efforts to fight climate change was adopted by more than 190 countries in 2015. Then-President Barack Obama negotiated to allow countries to sign up to the agreement without the approval of their legislatures. At the time, he knew he wouldn’t get even a non-binding framework for emissions reductions through a Republican-controlled Congress.

That same provision, however, allowed Donald Trump to declare he was pulling out of the agreement on November 4, 2017. The process takes three years to become official, so as election returns filtered in from across the country and the unseating of Trump became more and more likely, America quietly ditched the Paris pact at midnight.

“When you have the world’s biggest economy and second-biggest emitter saying that it won’t take action on climate change, it does hamper our ability to work together as global community to ensure a safer planet for our kids and grandkids,” Climate Change Minister James Shaw said in reaction to the news.

What does this mean for efforts, here and around the globe, to ward off climate change? And how easy will it be for a possible President Joe Biden to reenter the agreement, as he has promised?

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions

On the latter, at least, the answer is clear. The same provision that Obama used to sign up to the pact and that Trump used to bow out would allow Biden to re-ratify the agreement essentially immediately.

That’s something Shaw wants to see.

“If Joe Biden does win the election, I hope that one of his first acts as President is to re-join the other 189 countries who are part of the Paris Agreement,” he said.

“It would be a clear signal that addressing the climate crisis will, once again, become a priority for the US. That way, our kids and grandkids can look back on Trump and see someone who delayed, rather than defined, US climate action.”

It is unlikely that the United States’ temporary absence from the Paris Agreement would have an impact on the country’s future efforts to reduce emissions – but the past four years of inaction or backsliding could well.

Bronywyn Hayward, a political scientist and climate policy expert at the University of Canterbury, said America’s formal exit from Paris was little more than symbolism and wouldn’t have a serious impact on global ambition to tackle climate change. What did have an impact was Trump’s original notification that he intended to leave the agreement and his administration’s steadfastly anti-climate policies.

“The worst period came previously. There is ironically slightly more hope now, if the US does enter back in,” she said.

“The initial reality is that it was more difficult in 2017 some ways because it was more important to raise the ambition of everybody else when you lose a really major player like the US from an agreement. [Instead], the big countries – particularly the US, but also Britain around Brexit – have become very distracted from multilateral negotiations around climate and the environment. That’s been the reality for the last three years.”

Victoria University of Wellington climate scientist James Renwick said the world can still tackle climate change without the United States.

“Success is not contingent on the US, on that simple basis. But I suppose the worry is that from a policy-making, diplomatic point of view, not having one of the major emitters involved in the agreement is kind of corrosive to the process. It would only encourage other countries to do the same or maybe not be as ambitious as they might be otherwise,” he said.

Pro-climate Americans are aware of the impact Trump’s four years in power will have had on the country’s global image.

“Walking in like the returning champions after these four years is not something that we can or should do,” Kate Larsen, who worked on climate change in the Obama White House, told a Zoom panel on Thursday.

However, there has been some movement in the United States by individual states. In 2017, California, New York and Washington launched the United States Climate Alliance, in which each member pledged to reduce its own emissions in line with the US’ original Paris target. That now consists of 24 states, plus Puerto Rico and American Samoa, representing more than half of the country’s emissions and more than half of its GDP.

“The federal government is not the defining factor when it comes to US action on climate change. Despite the Trump White House’s best efforts to drag US climate action backwards, it hasn’t stopped progress at the state and city level. Cities, states, and businesses are America’s climate innovators, deploying bottom-up solutions and working with legislatures, city councils, and corporate boards to drive the transition to a low carbon economy,” Shaw said.

Leadership needed

While that progress has been commendable, Hawyward says, the Climate Alliance can’t make up for the gap in global leadership on climate.

“Our really big problem, globally, is that we have no large states that have been offering leadership over the last three years,” she said. Only in the past few months have a handful of east Asian nations like China, Japan and South Korea stepped up and pledged to reduce emissions to net zero over the next three to four decades.

“Bringing the US back in will be really important for making sure that everyone stays accountable. It’s easy to set all these goals, but actually delivering them, showing that you’re measuring them, doing concrete things on the ground – that’s where the difference is going to be, that’s the hard part and that’s where we need everybody’s effort. And there’s no denying that the US has got enormous intellectual and scientific innovation that we really need to bring as ways of thinking about how to actually address our collective problems.”

That doesn’t just mean accountability for big emitters, but it includes small countries like New Zealand as well.

“We have a lot of really good-looking targets but nothing to deliver. This has to be delivery period. In some ways, the US entering back will just add to a sense of collective momentum. That’s what I’m looking forward to, is a sense that actually we can make some really significant changes quite simply. It’s not impossible, it’s something that we just have to start doing,” Hayward said.

She also rebuffed the notion that the Paris Agreement was largely symbolic. Although it is non-binding, it provides a global standard for emissions reductions that other countries can be held to. It also provides a focus for common, collective efforts and an easy way to censure nations that don’t do enough.

“We can be cynical about the Paris Agreement. Well actually, if you think back to what it was like just in 2015 when we were still having to argue that climate change was observable and real, getting 190 of the world’s governments to actually agree it is happening was a really significant difference. It made the US an outlier to step away from that,” she said.

Enforcing it, however, requires collective action at a grassroots level, Hayward says.

“One of the things that I think probably isn’t understood is that the Paris Agreement does place enormous pressure and expectation on the public to actually hold governments to account for what they’ve pledged.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment