“I, Joseph R. Biden Jr., President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the Paris Agreement, done at Paris on December 12, 2015, do hereby accept the said Agreement and every article and clause thereof on behalf of the United States of America.
Done at Washington this 20th day of January, 2021.”
JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.
The inauguration of Joseph R. Biden into the Presidential office on January 20, 2021, resulted in many changes to the United States of America’s policies and foreign relations, just within a day or two. One of the major changes invoked by the President was the re-entry of the USA into the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is a “legally binding international treaty on climate change. The goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.” The agreement works on a 5-year cycle, with every country specifying a plan of action to help mitigate climate change, pledging towards a climate neutral world. The goal for every country is to reduce their Greenhouse gas emission and, at the same time build resilience to adapt to the rising temperatures.
The Paris Agreement came into force on November 16, 2015 after at least 55 countries that contributed to 55% of the global emissions ratified it. It required that each party submit Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are plans of actions stated by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to climate change in their country. These climate actions and the country’s pledge to see them through, together determine whether the world will move towards the long-term goals of climate neutrality. These NDCs are to be submitted every five years, with the new NDCs showing some sign of progression compared to the previous one.
USA, under President Barack Obama, joined the agreement on September 3, 2016. The USA had already taken various steps to curb climate change such as increase the use of wind energy and solar energy, with a reduction in the use of conventional power as well as stop infrastructure that would require a high use of carbon fossil fuels. Already being a part of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement posed no new obligations or laws that the United States had to incorporate. In spite of this, their move into the agreement played an important role. First, it helped set the agreement into motion. Being the second-largest contributor to climate change, the USA helped seal the agreement’s ratification requirement of 55 countries that contributed 55% global emission. Moreover, being the world’s largest economy, it set an example of taking ownership and responsibility, a good path for all other nations to follow.
In the first NDC submission of the USA (2015), the mission to curb climate change was out in bold. The intended target was the reduction of all greenhouse gas emission by 26-28% below the country’s 2005 levels, to be achieved by the year 2025. Several laws were put into motion to work towards achieving this target including the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy Act and the Energy Independence and Security Act. Under these acts, regulations were being put to motion to cut carbon pollution from power plants, to check on methane emissions from landfills and the oil and gas sector and to reduce the use and emissions of high-GWP HFCs (Global Warming Potential Hydrofluorocarbons). The United States Department of Energy also planned to continue to reduce building sector emissions through building code determination for every residential building and promulgating energy conservation standards.
This resolve for climate change, taken by President Obama, on behalf of the citizens of the USA, changed course when the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, took up the Presidential office from Obama. He declared to formally withdraw from the agreement in June 2017, but due to UN regulations this came into effect only in November 2020. According to the then President, the agreement posed intolerable burdens on the American economy, and claimed that it would cost the country 2.5 million jobs by 2025. He believed that other major emitters, such as China, were being given a free pass. Since 2017, according to a New York times article, Trump rolled back around 100 different environmental rules including limits on carbon emissions by power-plants, removal of the protections that were placed on the country’s wetlands and weakened regulations on the release of mercury and other harmful gases from oil and coal power plants. It was also believed that the Interior Department was working to reduce wildlife protection policies and weakening environmental requirements for projects, so as to open up land for oil and gas. Removal of these environmental rules was believed to have significantly increased global warming. According to an ABC news report, it had a huge impact on the USA’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 26-28% of their 2005 levels, removing all what the Obama administration had worked for. States decided to take matters in their own hands, with California becoming the first state to pass legislation that it will aim for carbon neutrality by 2020, and New York following suit.
One of the biggest controversies in the USA, since 2008, was the Keystone XL pipeline extension project proposed by TC Energy Corporation. The pipeline was meant to help transport tar sands oil to markets faster. While it would have had a positive impact on the American economy in terms of job creation and reduced dependency on Middle Eastern countries, the project was associated with the chance of devastating environmental impacts. The chances of leakage, based on scientific data and past records of the pipeline, were many leading to negative impacts on the environment and wildlife. Moreover, the pipeline would cross agriculturally important and environmentally sensitive areas, making it riskier. Cleaning up these leaks, never has, and never will be an easy job. This is one of the many reasons why it was rejected in 2015 by the then President Barack Obama. “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” President Obama said. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.” When Donald Trump became president, he allowed the construction of this pipeline, with many sources citing that he tried unlawful ways to gain permits for the same.
There is again a significant change in approach now, with President Biden in the chair. One of the first measures taken by him was to re-enter the USA into the Paris agreement, and to revoke the permit given to the Keystone XL pipeline. During his campaign as a presidential candidate, he laid out a USD 5 trillion plus climate action proposal to bring the country towards carbon neutrality by 2050. These moves will help the USA gain its seat back as the leader for climate change action drive. They should begin to lead the way back to reducing emissions, setting bars for everyone else to do the same. According to the UN-Secretary General, with USA’s commitment to enter the agreement, countries producing two-thirds of global carbon pollution have committed to carbon neutrality. It has only been a month or so since President Joe Biden has taken up office, but with the steps he has taken towards environmental preservation, his candidacy looks promising for the critical causes of environment, wildlife and the people. We can hope to see changes for the better, in terms of climate change and reducing global warming levels. There are no pointing fingers when it comes to actions to curb climate change. It is a united process, and as President Obama said in his 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) speech, “Here, in Paris, we can show the world what is possible when we come together, united in common effort and by a common purpose.
Shreya Ramchandran is a second-year undergraduate Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University, and a prospective minor in psychology. She is passionate about environmental economics, seeking to analyse various environmental and economic issues, and to find possible solutions to it.