With US back in, time for fresh start for Paris Agreement

Can Biden lead the world away from Climate Crisis?


January 22, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

With US back in, time for fresh start for Paris Agreement

In 30 days, the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement from where its formal exit had occurred in November last year

With the United States back in, time is ripe for all signatories of the Paris Agreement, possibly the last stand against an all-out climate catastrophe, it is time for the world leaders to move rapidly on their commitments and set more ambitious targets immediately. Is the US up to the task of taking the lead at this critical juncture?

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True to his campaign promise, within hours of taking office, the newly elected President of the United States, Joe Biden, annulled his predecessor Donald Trump’s decision on June 2017 to exit the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, paving way for the world’s largest economy and second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases to reintegrate with the global battle to slow down climate change.

The new order means that in 30 days, the US will rejoin the agreement from where its formal exit had occurred in November last year, at the end of the notice period as per the agreement. No doubt the move is a big boost not just for the Paris deal but also the global community engaged in what is touted as the last stand against a total climate disaster on the earth.

Despite most of the leaders agreeing upon the importance of the Paris Agreement to save humanity, little progress has been made in this so far. The deal was signed in December 2015, after prolonged negotiations lasting well over a fortnight in the French capital during the meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), called COP 21 or 21st Conference of Parties. The credit for the agreement could justifiably be taken by the host France, as well as China, India and the United States, whose then-President Barack Obama led the negotiations from the front and did not hesitate to push aside concerns of critics back home.

Though it was reached after a fair bit of haggling and it has been celebrated the world over since the Paris Agreement had many imperfections from the word go. One of the biggest problems in the agreement was with the target itself. Despite clear warnings from the scientists of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who had submitted a detailed report on various scenarios of the condition of the Earth, the global leaders could not reach an agreement to take steps and set individual country targets for keeping the carbon emissions down to a level so that the global temperature rise was kept below 1.5°C as compared to pre-industrialisation period. The best they could manage was to limit the increase to 2°C.

But even this target has arrived through fudge with numbers and that is where the biggest problem with the current text of the Paris Agreement. It reads more like an oath that Boy Scouts could take rather than pledges from serious statesmen and leaders on an issue that could either push the world beyond redemption or indeed save it from the impending climatic catastrophe. The agreement is full of adjectives and goals, without any kind of commitment or even a clear path as to how those goals would or could be achieved and what happens if some are not met. In short, the nations agreed to :

  • To peak greenhouse gas emissions ‘as soon as possible’ and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the ‘second half of this century’
  • To keep global temperature increase ‘well below’ 2C (3.6F) and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C
  • To review progress every five years
  • USD 100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future

One of the first and most parameters for testing the outcome of the Paris Summit are the targets that each nation was to set for itself to ensure that the total global emissions of greenhouse gases start to decline in a meaningful manner from 2020 itself. Most of the countries had submitted their plans under Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to the UNFCCC for cutting emissions post-2020. The name INDC itself was a giveaway on the real objective of COP 21. What is needed is a legally binding commitment from the countries, especially the large emitters and that too in proportion to their current and forecast emissions. Instead, COP 21 has seen countries setting voluntary targets, which are not even enforceable.

Also, the INDCs do not even reflect the same parameters. For instance, some nations have pledged to curtail their absolute carbon emission targets, while others have offered to cut the carbon emissions intensity, that is carbon emission per unit of the Gross Domestic Product of the country as is India’s case, which has promised to try to cut its carbon intensity by up to 30 pc by 2030.

The total cuts proposed by various nations in the lead up to the Paris meeting were alarmingly insufficient. According to a study by the London School of Economics, the total global pledges received before COP 21 would lead to annual global carbon emissions of about 57 bn tonnes, instead of the redline of 36 bn tonnes drawn by the UN for the world to have a reasonable chance of keeping the global warming by 2100 to less than 2° C.

According to a report by Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, in 2014, the total carbon emissions around the world had grown by over 50 pc from the 1990 level, instead of being at least 5 pc lower. This is one of the biggest takeaways for the negotiators at COP 21 and adds, very worryingly, that the global temperatures are set to rise by anywhere between 4-7.8 pc by the year 2100, which is catastrophe personified.

Thus, the expectation from the Paris meeting had been that it would result in deep cuts in emissions targets by the developed world, to show the way ahead for the developing nations. Yet, the only thing that the meeting in Paris managed to add to the INDCs was a review of these targets by the countries every five years, with the ambition of strengthening these targets and achieving the reductions at the earliest possible. This lack of specificity has been described as ‘between dangerous and deadly’ by leading climate scientists.

Since then, so far, at every single milestone, the global leaders have failed to fulfil their commitments. One stark example is the COP 24 in Katowice in November 2018 when the nations failed even to agree on a report by the world’s most respected scientists about the urgency of taking steps to protect the planet.

The seeds of trouble sown in the Paris Agreement blossomed into large-scale problems when it was time for the five-yearly review. Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise incessantly, without any sign of even a slow down in the rate of growth. Instead, the growth rate has only accelerated over the five years, putting the focus on the agreement in Paris to review and tighten the targets in order to achieve net carbon emissions globally by the year 2050.

This was to be the key issue to be discussed at the COP 26 meeting that was supposed to have been held at Glasgow in November last year. However, due to Covid-19 pandemic, that meeting was postponed to 2021.

Despite all evidence of rapidly rising global warming and climate change from across the globe, the political and business leaders seem to have stayed in their cocoon, either denying that global warming is happening or that their country or company is responsible for it. For well over a decade, the world has seen dozens of opportunities to take united and concerted action to curb carbon emissions and get a grip over this critical issue slip by.

It is here that President Joe Biden can show the way while undoing the damage inflicted by Trump, not just on the United States, but the global environment. The US can and ought to take the lead and be the first nation to set legally enforceable targets for itself, keeping in mind that on per capita basis, the US is by far the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. A significant cut in this would go a very long way in helping the world keep the temperature rise to below 1.5°C.

The US should also loosen its purse strings and lead the developed world towards meeting their commitment of providing USD 100 billion in climate finance to the developing countries for the next 10 years in order to help them not only cut their emissions but also be able to face the problems caused by severe weather events due to climate change.

Both these moves would go a long way in not just much-needed repositioning of the US at the head of the global table, but also trigger a revival of the Paris Agreement and infuse critical energy in the global battle to slow down climate change and save the earth.



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