When November 2016 and November 2020 are compared from the perspective of the US elections and the Paris Agreement, we find contrasting scenarios. On November 4, 2016, the US Election Day was on the horizon while the Paris Climate Agreement came into force after at least 55 countries, including the US, representing 55 percent of global emissions had ratified it. On November 4, 2020, immediately after new Election Day, the US formally left the Paris Agreement, following their decision in 2017 to withdraw from it. Now that the new president-elect Joe Biden has vowed to return to the Paris Agreement on his (to-be) first day at the office, discussions have emerged around the world, particularly on the possibility of achieving the 1.5 °C temperature goal.
With the US being on the verge of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, the renewed hope or expectation, whatever we call it, has several dimensions. While the world is at the risk of defaulting on the 1.5 °C temperature threshold, the US as the world's largest economy and 2nd largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter cannot stay on the sideline much longer. Notably, we are collectively heading towards the grim prospect of global warming beyond 2.7 °C where some countries are contributing more while others add significantly less. Overall, the larger economies, including the US, are historically responsible for human-induced global warming and climate change. On the other hand, the least developed countries have contributed reasonably less. The international cooperation on climate change, therefore, hinges on common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR).
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, all countries under the Paris Climate Agreement have their own roles while CBDR is prominently present. The countries that have ratified Paris Climate Agreement have their own targets for emission reduction. Even then, developed countries have broader and more precise roles in reducing a larger quantity of GHG emissions. The developed countries are also the ones to support developing and least developed countries to achieve conditional mitigation targets, aided by appropriate finance, capacity development and technology transfer. Furthermore, they are supposed to support adaptation projects in the countries that are disproportionately at the forefront of climate change impact and suffering. However, there is a level of uncertainty over mobilising the additional US$100 billion of financing per annum to be channelled to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) that had been agreed upon by the developed countries. In that regard, the return of the US to the Paris Agreement could be a big stride towards the developed countries' goal of securing US$100 billion climate finance per annum.
Besides, the new President in US office will find room for manoeuvring some of the national energy and climate policies as well as actions undertaken by Donald Trump, who had reversed the system that had been developed in Obama era. With a clear mandate on climate action, Biden has a real opportunity to make the US a climate leader despite what we saw during the Trump administration (which aggressively promoted fossil fuels and backtracked from environmental policy and regulations). In fact, the Trump era is characterised as a period of "climate denial".
On the other hand, Biden's pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050 and his investment plan for a green recovery from COVID-19, if materialised, would lead to a reduction of global warming by around 0.1 °C as analysed by Climate Action Tracker.
Around a month ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to reach net-zero emission by 2060. This, according to Climate Action Tracker, would eventually contain rise in global warming between 0.2 °C to 0.3 °C by 2100. With the cumulative effort of the US and China, global warming could be limited between 2.3 °C to 2.4 °C by 2100 against the present trajectory of 2.7 °C.
Additionally, both Japan and South Korea have recently endorsed a net-zero emission target as well. Similarly, the European Union (EU) has embarked on a trillion-euro green deal to trigger green transformation across the member countries.
The new pledges by the major polluting countries, as mentioned above, indicate that the economies contributing to more than half of global GHG emissions would reach net zero-emission by 2050 to 2060.
Therefore, the ominous cloud that was on the climate horizon even a few months ago regarding the fear of overshooting GHG emissions to the level far beyond what is acceptable to maintain a maximum rise in global temperatures of 1.5 °C seems a bit different now. And the sudden shifts in policies towards net zero emission by a number of major economies raises hopes for the possibility of containing global warming within or around 1.5 °C.
However, a far-reaching impact is still being anticipated by energy and climate experts around the world. If the US under the Biden regime could get the climate policy and plans rolling in the appropriate direction, the impact would be much broader than just emission reduction in the US. There are already calls from people to increase the climate action taken by all countries with a greater emphasis on rich nations to reflect it in their revised nationally determined contributions (NDCs). And perhaps as a multiplier effect of the new climate policy stance of the US under the presidency of Biden, we may see the wind of change in the next Conference of the Parties that is scheduled to be held in 2021.
While it remains to be seen to what extent Biden would face opposition against what he holds in his agenda for climate action, he has already elevated the "climate change" issue to another level during his campaign for the presidency. The first thing for him would be to return to the Paris Agreement and then to chart the pathway that would help the US achieve the net-zero emission goal. Additionally, on the ground, he still has a lot of work to do starting from minimising the damages being done by the Trump administration and revoking and/or reversing the regulations that work against science. This will restore the confidence of the experts working on energy and climate policies. As such, the new US administration would need not only to ramp up its efforts but also to bring the deeply divided country on-board.
Shafiqul Alam is a Humboldt Scholar. He is an engineer and environmental economist.