US exits Paris Climate Accord

Written by Lori Campbell on 4th Nov 2020

As the United States election hangs in the balance, the country today officially exits the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Exactly one year ago, President Donald Trump’s administration formally notified the United Nations that it would be withdrawing after the legally required one-year waiting period. This means it is abandoning the pact on the earliest possible day.

The Paris Accord aims to avoid devastating climate change by dramatically reducing the global greenhouse gas emissions which are heating the planet. Countries must commit to their own goals to help curb global temperature rise, aiming to stay well within 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5C.

Devastating consequences

The consequences of the climate crisis are now increasingly visible with wildfires, a rapid loss of biodiversity and melting ice in the Arctic causing rising sea levels and extreme flooding. This year the US has seen its worst ever wildfires across its west coast and hurricanes have caused destruction in the Gulf and flooding across the heartland.

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The US is currently the only country to withdraw from the global pact. It can still attend negotiations and give opinions, but will now be restricted to observer status and will not be able to vote. Its departure could see a rise in fossil fuel use across the country, with further rollbacks on existing environmental legislation. It also sets a worrying precedent for other countries that aren’t keen to end their reliance on fossil fuels.

Of the 195 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, 189 went on to formally adopt the accord. Initially Nicaragua and Syria withheld their support from the pact but both eventually joined.

Trump first announced his intention to abandon the Paris agreement in June 2017, saying it would be an end to “the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.” He has called the agreement “job-killing” and said it would “punish the American people while enriching foreign polluters.”

Technically, though, the Paris Agreement doesn’t require the United States to do anything. It’s a non-binding agreement among nations across all levels of wealth and responsibility for causing climate change to reduce their domestic emissions.

Cost of extreme weather

Experts say the US is, in fact, set to suffer economically and socially from failing to curb the effects of the climate crisis. Research shows that extreme weather events cost the US economy more than $306 billion (£235 billion) in 2017, and that future climate-related events could drive more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030.
A report produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for the G20 found that climate policy can boost growth and employment. The study predicted that G20 nations could see a 5 per cent increase in growth by 2050 if they put strategies for carbon reduction into place.
Climate Advisers CEO Nigel Purvis, who was a lead State Department climate negotiator in the Clinton and George W Bush administration, said: “The US agreement is not a tax on the American people. There is no massive wealth transfer. In fact, the agreement obligates no country to make any financial payments.”

Carbon emissions

The withdrawal of the US is a harsh blow to global efforts to reduce global warming. In 2019, the US was responsible for 14 per cent of global carbon emissions, behind China which was responsible for almost double that at 26 per cent. (The EU is 9 per cent and India is 7 per cent of the global total), according to the Global Carbon Project.

While the US has taken a backseat in the climate challenge, China’s President Xi Jinping is calling for a “green revolution.” He announced the country’s pledge for carbon neutrality by 2060 at the UN General Assembly earlier this year, with an aim to have carbon emissions peak before 2030. Japan and South Korea have, in the last few weeks, committed to going carbon neutral by 2050. The UK, EU and New Zealand have all set the same deadline.

Joe Biden’s climate pledge

If opposition candidate Joe Biden becomes president, he has said he would immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement. He is calling for a 100 per cent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050. His $2 trillion (£1.6 trillon) plan would see the US run on zero-carbon electricity by 2035, further scaling back the influence of the coal industry.

But it wouldn’t be straightforward. His climate agenda would need the backing of Congress, which would most likely require a Democratic majority in both the house and Senate.

Fortunately, the collective willpower of some of the most powerful US cities and businesses are attempting to pick up the slack left by politicians.

‘We Are Still In’

Immediately after Trump’s Withdrawal announcement, a host of US states, corporates, investors, faith leaders and education groups came together with the ‘We Are Still In’ pledge. More than 900 companies, including Nike, Tesla, Google and Microsoft, have joined the declaration to “continue to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement.”

So while – depending on the election result – today’s withdrawal is a huge hurdle for climate action, it isn’t the end game.