U.S. will exit Paris Agreement today. Here’s how

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The U.S. will officially depart the Paris climate agreement today no matter who wins today’s presidential election.

The withdrawal from the 2015 pact was promised by President Trump in his vitriolic Rose Garden announcement on June 1, 2017, and it was formally initiated in a letter to the United Nations last year.

The question now is how long the U.S. will be out of the global agreement.

A second Trump term would likely expand U.S. detachment from the worldwide effort to stop temperatures from rising.

If Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, pulls off a victory, the United States’ absence from the agreement could be so short-lived that it stands to be forgotten by everyone but historians.

“If Biden wins,” said Nathaniel Keohane, a White House special assistant during President Obama’s first term, “this will be like the answer to a trivia question someday.”

But Biden, if victorious, would face immediate pressure not only to rejoin the Paris Agreement but also to achieve ambitious domestic policies to rebuild global trust in U.S. climate leadership, analysts said.

“Rejoining Paris is the easy part. The harder part is living into what that means,” said Alden Meyer, an independent climate expert.

Trump victory

If Trump is reelected, U.S. climate diplomacy over the next four years will be relatively straightforward, if globally unpopular. The U.S. would continue to send a tiny delegation of State Department and other staff to the annual U.N. climate confabs, because the U.S. will remain a party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. But it would have no formal role in negotiations related to the Paris Agreement.

That matters little, experts say, because the most important negotiations over the agreement and its rulebook are now concluded. Focus has shifted to what countries are doing at home to meet and strengthen their pledges of adaptation and emissions reduction — a concern that wouldn’t apply to the U.S., because it has no pledge.

The U.S. could play an almost invisible role in climate talks or it could be a skunk at the garden party, as it was two years ago in Katowice, Poland, when the U.S. joined with Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait to block language in a consensus statement welcoming the findings of the U.N.’s climate science body about the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But whether the U.S. makes itself a pariah or a nonentity, its absence as a galvanizing force for climate action would be felt.

“I think where our impact is being perhaps most closely felt is the pace and the immediacy of new climate commitments being announced by other countries,” said Jesse Young, Oxfam America’s policy lead and a former member of the U.S. negotiating team in Paris.

The Paris Agreement asked countries to reassess and consider strengthening their 2030 national targets this year, or to offer new targets if their pledges in the global pact ended in 2025. A total of 151 countries have submitted new targets or promised to strengthen or update them.

But some, like Japan, opted not to increase the stringency of their 2030 target. And China and India — the world’s most important developing economies — aren’t expected to meet this year’s deadline.

Young noted that the pandemic and its economic consequences are likely discouraging ambition, but U.S. indifference is also having a dampening effect.

Still, while countries have been slow to offer important near-term targets — known in U.N. parlance as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs — a growing list including China have pledged to stop emitting greenhouse gases completely in the middle of the century. And China continues to phase in a national carbon market system that could eventually feature a border adjustment mechanism for goods from countries that lack similar policies.

“You could see a scenario down the road a few years where China has that up and running and reaches some kind of agreement with Europe to impose border adjustment tariffs against the U.S. under Trump,” said Meyer. “Which would obviously get the attention of our heavy industry, who would then have to be paying duties for those markets.”

Biden wins

Former Vice President Biden has said that if elected president, he’ll rejoin the Paris Agreement “on day one.”

He can do that by sending the U.N. a letter via the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City announcing U.S. plans to rejoin the agreement. After a 30-day wait period, the U.S. would be party to Paris once more.

The earliest the U.S. could be back in the deal is Feb. 19, 2021.

But it would immediately be a member in bad standing. That’s because erstwhile U.S. climate goals of cutting emissions 26%-28% compared with 2005 levels by 2025, which were withdrawn by Trump, would be obsolete next year. Having failed to offer a new 2030 pledge, the U.S. would have no functioning national commitment.

International climate experts are united in saying that the U.S. under Biden would face pressure to quickly announce new carbon targets for 2030 that are ambitious — at least a 45%-50% pledge — and credible. The Biden White House would need to show its work on how it could deliver those reductions.

But some say nations might be forbearing if the U.S. is in the deal for a number of months without having turned in its homework.

“There’s theoretically a sweet spot here where you want the U.S. to have enough time to go through a process to make sure its NDC has buy-in and is credible and is backed up by real analysis, but not so late that it comes out right before the [Conference of the Parties],” said Young of Oxfam, referring to an important round of climate talks that will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, next November.

“Because I think everyone would like a strong U.S. NDC, assuming there is one, to be part of the drumbeat that encourages other countries to put forward revised NDCs of their own,” he added.

The process of constructing a national carbon target is likely to be different now than it was in 2014, when the U.S. debuted its top-line commitment to Paris a year before the summit as part of a surprise deal with China.

The process that led to that deal — which shocked the world and helped lay the groundwork for the global agreement the following year — was done in strict secret. The White House and State Department under senior Obama adviser John Podesta took the lead, and other agencies had a relatively truncated role.

This time, experts say, other federal agencies and state and local actors would have to be part of constructing the 2030 pledge to give the world the greatest possible confidence that the U.S. wouldn’t renege again.

Keohane, the former Obama adviser who now works for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that if he were advising Biden, he’d tell him not to write the letter to the U.N. on his first day as president.

Instead, Biden could assure the world that he plans to rejoin the agreement with an announcement or executive order “on day one,” Keohane said. That could buy him time to develop a credible emissions pledge, which must require climate legislation rather than just “green” stimulus spending and Clean Air Act regulations.

“That’s not something you do on the way home from the inauguration ceremony at the Capitol,” said Keohane.