By Gurinder Kaur
After being sworn as the United States’ new president, Joe Biden requested the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on the very first day of his term, to which Guterres asserted.
Responding to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the then U.S. President Barack Obama said that controlling global warming was the only common and commendable effort by all countries globally. But the next elected president, Donald Trump, withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as he took over the administration.
He believed that the climate agreement was against the U.S.’s economic growth and would destabilise the U.S. economy causing millions of people to become unemployed. Thus, on 4 November, 2020, the U.S. withdrew from the agreement under Donald Trump’s leadership.
Biden’s reverse move will lead the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on 19 February, 2021, within 30 days from 20 January. Many European countries have welcomed this move. Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement would mean that the U.S. will have to abide by the rules and regulations set by the U.S.’s agreement and fulfil its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Suppose the Biden administration is taking the Paris Climate Agreement seriously; in that case, it should consider the environmental damage done by the Trump administration during the 4 years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2018 have increased by 2.6%. The reason being, President Trump approved a large number of projects such as coal-fired power plants and the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Such projects generated excessive greenhouse gases.
Trump’s administration dismantled significant climate policies and rolled back more than 100 laws on environmental protection. They even cut off financial aid to the environmental protection institutions. According to a report of the Union of Concerned Scientists 2020, every person in the U.S. emits 16.56 tons of carbon dioxide per year, resulting from American people’s lifestyle and consumption habits.
Developing countries such as China and India emitted more greenhouse gases and turned a blind eye to the agreement due to the U.S. withdrawal decision from the Paris Climate Agreement. China emits the largest share (28%) of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and has installed coal-fired power plants. They claimed to cut emissions after 2030, after reaching the peak of its economic growth.
According to a July 2019 report of Thomson Reuters, India also planned to increase the coal-fired power generation capacity by 22% between 2018 and 2022. These countries have also shied away from their responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The average global temperature has risen sharply in the last 4 years due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. According to NOAAs 2020 annual climate report, 7 years from 2014 to 2020 are the hottest years on record. A report of the World Meteorological Organisation titled, The State of the Global Climate 2020, the earth’s temperature rose 1.2 degrees Celsius from January to October 2020, but under the influence of La-Nina, the rise in temperature in November and December was lower than in the other months of the year.
The average temperature rise in 2020 was only 0.02 degrees Celsius lower than the hottest year ever in 2016. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also increased rapidly during 2015-2020. In December 2015, the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 401.95 ppm (parts per million), which increased to 413.95 ppm in December 2020.
Carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas that is increasing the temperature. Increasing greenhouse gases has raised the average global temperature by 1.00 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution.
Cold shouldering climate agreements by the U.S. have been its disadvantage. The United States is also suffering the brunt of global warming. According to the NOAA, in 2020, 22 major natural disasters in the United States caused an estimated $95 billion damage.
Six of the worst wildfires ever occurred in California in 2020, burning 10.3 million acres of forest to ashes. The blaze was so intense that from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the sky was vested with flames and turned ominous shades, from a brownish orange to blood-red that made headlines worldwide.
Wildfire pollution continued to plague the western and the eastern parts of the U.S. Hurricanes are recorded at a high number of 31, which hit the U.S. hard. Currently, the U.S. is experiencing heavy snow and strong cold waves due to the rise of average temperatures in the Arctic region caused by climate change.
The return to Paris Climate Agreement can be a golden opportunity for the U.S. to offset the damage caused by global warming in the entire world, including the U.S. However, the U.S.’s behaviour has been uncertain towards environmental conferences or protocols that have been held to curb global warming. U.S. leaderships have always failed to honour their environmental promises.
At the first Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, all the world’s major developed countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2000 to their 1990 levels. The decision was signed and ratified by the U.S. envoy. However, then-President H W Bush said that the American lifestyle is not up for negotiation and refused to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol followed this summit in Japan in 1997, which promised that all the world’s developed countries (the U.S, Canada, Russian Federation, Japan, all European and other countries) would reduce 5.2% greenhouse gases between 2008 and 2012 below 1990 levels.
Again, the U.S. vice-president Al Gore weakened the protocol by downgrading a Clean Development Compliance Fund and advocating carbon markets flexibility mechanisms’. The U.S. President Bill Clinton signed this weak protocol and promised to implement it in the country, but the Senate of the U.S. did not pass it.
4 years later, President George W Bush announced withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Following this, other countries — Japan, New Zealand, and the Russian Federation in 2012 also refused to abide by protocol, further undermining its relevance. The second part of the Kyoto protocol was supposed to begin in 2012, but it ended before starting.
As per the Bali Action Plan 2007, the U.S.’s representatives opposed the imposition of legal binding on climate-related agreements. In 2009, the European countries at Copenhagen raised the concern of the U.S.’s negligence towards climatic accords. In 2014, an IPCC report warned of the possible natural disasters due to increased climatic negligence impacts.
The Paris Climate Agreement was introduced at a conference held in Paris (France) in 2015. The conference of parties vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All the countries submitted their carbon reduction targets, commonly known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), to achieve the aim. The targets outlined each country’s commitments to curb emissions through 2025 or 2030, including economy-wide carbon-cutting goals.
The conference held during Obama’s presidency, and he praised the move. However, with the change in the U.S. administration, the agreement was withdrawn by the U.S. in November 2020. Such uncertainty in U.S. behaviour has cost the climate, and its return to the agreement in 2020 will help achieve climatic endeavours.
The new U.S. President must increase the greenhouse gas emissions cut as agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement. For such a move, the U.S. should learn from European countries and New Zealand. European countries have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 24% between 1990- 2019, while the opposite is being followed in the U.S.
European countries intend to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030. New Zealand is setting a unique example as it has declared a Climate Emergency and is working to make the country carbon neutral by 2025.
The U.S should now equate its emissions of greenhouse gases, at least on par with the European countries (55%) on 1990 emissions levels. It should do so at a quicker pace than any other country. The nation should ensure that the Green Climate Fund and the amount of assistance provided to developing and emerging countries affected by climate change natural disasters be deposited, and expeditious efforts should be made to provide these countries with clean technology.
The U.S. administration should also motivate its people to change their lifestyle and consumption habits. By doing so, they would fulfil their commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement in true spirits.
The author is a Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala and Visiting Professor, IMPRI