On November 4th, 2020, the United States officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. The Paris Agreement, agreed upon in the 21st Conference of Parties in 2015 and ratified in 2016, has the overarching goal of boosting the international response to climate change by limiting global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” and pursuing efforts to limit it even more to 1.5 °C.
This withdrawal does not exactly come as a surprise, given that President Trump had declared the US would leave the Paris Agreement back in 2017. However, it was not possible to do so immediately.
This three-year delay is a result of the Paris Agreement rules, where if any country wishes to leave the deal, they cannot do so until three years after the deal became international law: November 4th, 2016. As such, Trump could only send a formal notification to the United Nations on November 4th, 2019—after which came the mandatory 12-month notice period, ending last week on November 4th.
This makes the United States the only country, to date, to have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. However, this does not remove the US entirely from UN climate negotiations. While it will not remain an active member of climate meetings concerning the Paris Agreement, it will still be able to attend these meetings as an observer.
Furthermore, given that the Paris Agreement is only one segment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the US will continue to be a member of the UNFCCC. However, how this will work in practice is still up in the air.
From the very beginning, Trump had made it quite clear that he would roll back environmental and climate regulations. This latest development with the Paris Agreement is, thus, part of a broader pattern. However, it still constitutes a serious problem for international measures to combat climate change.
Before discussing the implications of the US withdrawal on global efforts concerning climate change mitigation, it is worth mentioning its effect on the role and image of the US. With this being the second time the US has backed out of a climate deal that it played a significant role in negotiating—the first being the Kyoto Protocol that it did not even end up ratifying—it may be difficult for the US to rejoin international discussions on climate matters with much credibility. One former State Department official involved in the Paris Agreement’s negotiations characterized the withdrawal as a “train wreck of US diplomacy.”
In terms of the broader impacts of the withdrawal, in the absence of the United States, the EU, with its Green Deal, and China, with its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060, have taken the lead when it comes to global climate action. Overall, pledges of net-zero emissions have been made by over 60 countries globally. Though this, in and of itself, is a positive development, the gap left by the US is still an issue.
With the absence of the US, China becomes more of a heavyweight among those who are party to the Paris Agreement, and those issues that had not been finalized could now be settled in a way that is more in line with China’s interests. This could particularly have negative consequences for the deal’s effectiveness if, for instance, China can oppose the tracking and reporting of national progress toward achieving climate goals.
Of course, the withdrawal of the US is not only detrimental in these more political ways. As the second-largest polluter in the world, its absence is a significant obstacle in the way of keeping global warming below 2 °C, much less 1.5 °C. Nonetheless, the concrete impacts of the US leaving the deal do not end with the US itself. This move also gives those countries that are reliant on fossil fuels, such as Australia, Brazil, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, a cover not to take action on climate change or to undermine the Agreement actively.
Moreover, on top of those countries that already were not willing to take significant action, the US withdrawal might also lead to a number of other countries lowering their efforts to carry out their existing commitments. This is especially true if Trump is re-elected.
However, Joe Biden has already stated that he would rejoin the Agreement in his first days in office if he were to win. The process to become a party again is relatively short: the US could do so 30 days after it has formally communicated to the UN that it wishes to rejoin. Biden could initiate this process through an executive order accepting the Paris Agreement.
Nevertheless, the United States would still have to submit an official emissions-reduction plan—a nationally determined contribution (NDC)—for 2030. What this will look like is not definitively known, but one can get a sense of how ambitious it might be from Biden’s Plan for Climate Change and Environmental Justice, where he has pledged to invest $2 trillion to fight climate change and create carbon-free electricity by 2035, as well as to reach net-zero emissions “no later than 2050.”
Whether or not the US ends up rejoining the Paris Agreement, though, it will not be able to resume the position it was in back in 2015 when the deal had just been negotiated. The United States will have to work to rebuild the trust it has lost when it comes to climate action. Indeed, as stated by POLITICO Europe’s Karl Mathiesen, “The world will take them back, but things won’t be the same.”