The U.S. has officially left the Paris climate agreement.
However, the permanence of its departure hangs on the still-uncertain outcome of Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election. While President Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, his rival former Vice President Joe Biden has promised to rejoin “on day one,” as NPR pointed out. Either way, the U.S. withdrawal has hurt trust in the country’s ability to follow through on climate diplomacy initiated by one administration when another takes power.
“Being out formally obviously hurts the US reputation,” former Obama administration climate official Andrew Light told BBC News. “This will be the second time that the United States has been the primary force behind negotiating a new climate deal — with the Kyoto Protocol we never ratified it, in the case of the Paris Agreement, we left it. So, I think it’s obviously a problem.”
The landmark 2015 agreement was designed to limit the global warming causing the climate crisis to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and ideally to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The U.S. is currently responsible for around 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is historically the country that has contributed the most emissions to the atmosphere, NPR pointed out. Under the Paris agreement, the U.S. had pledged to reduce emissions around 25 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, but it is now only on track to reduce them by 17 percent.
This is partly due to Trump administration environmental policies like the rollback of Obama-era emissions controls on power plants and vehicles. Emissions rose during the first two years of Trump’s presidency but have declined in 2020 because of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. withdrawal has also affected a global fund intended to help poorer countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis adapt to rising seas and temperatures. The U.S. had originally committed to supplying $3 billion, but the Trump administration withdrew two-thirds of that amount.
“The U.S. was a major pledger to that first funding. When they never delivered, that certainly was an impact to us,” Carlos Fuller, the lead climate negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, told NPR.
Trump first formally announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement in 2017, arguing that it would harm U.S. jobs, The New York Times reported. His administration formally began the withdrawal process Nov. 4, 2019, the earliest date possible under UN rules. That process then took a year, which is why the U.S. is officially out today. If Biden wins and rejoins the agreement on Jan. 20, the reversal would be effective 30 days later.
The U.S. is now the only country to withdraw from the accord. It has been signed by 195 countries and ratified by 189. In the absence of U.S. leadership, other major players have pressed forward. In the past month, the European Parliament has voted to reduce emissions 60 percent by 2030, while China has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2060 and Japan and South Korea have both promised to do the same by 2050.
“There’s momentum continuing to build even with the U.S. pulling out,” Union of Concerned Scientists director Alden Meyer told The New York Times. “The question is, would it continue without the U.S. fully on board?”
Main image: Donald Trump speaking at an immigration policy speech in Phoenix, Arizona, in Augut 2016. Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY–SA 3.0