US exit from climate pact seen as a lost opportunity
The United States formally exited the Paris Agreement on Wednesday, fulfilling an old promise by President Donald Trump to withdraw the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter from the global pact to fight climate change.
Trump first announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the pact in June 2017, arguing it would undermine the US economy. The administration formally served notice of the withdrawal to the United Nations on November 4, 2019, which took one year to take effect.
The departure makes the United States the only country of 197 signatories to have withdrawn from the 2015 agreement, which aims to keep the increase in average temperatures worldwide “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, ideally no more than 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels.
Scientists say that any rise beyond 2 degrees could have a devastating impact on large parts of the world, raising sea levels, stoking tropical storms and worsening droughts and floods.
The Paris accord requires countries to set their own voluntary targets for reducing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. The only binding requirement is that nations have to accurately report on their efforts.
With the United States outside the pact, climate diplomats said it will be harder for the rest of the world to reach the agreed goals.
“This will be a lost opportunity for a collective global fight against climate change,” said Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale, chair of the African Group of Negotiators in global climate talks.
A US exit would also create a “significant shortfall” in global climate finances, Gahouma-Bekale said, pointing to an Obama-era pledge to contribute US$3 billion to a fund to help vulnerable countries tackle climate change, of which only US$1 billion was delivered.
While the Trump administration has shunned federal measures to cut emissions, states, cities and businesses in the United States have pressed ahead with their own efforts.
Other major emitters have doubled down on climate action even without guarantees the US will follow suit. China, Japan and South Korea have all pledged in recent weeks to become carbon neutral — a commitment already made by the European Union.
Those pledges will help drive the huge low-carbon investments needed to curb climate change. If the United States were to re-enter the Paris accord, it would give those efforts “a massive shot in the arm,” said Thom Woodroofe, a former diplomat in UN climate talks, now a senior adviser at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the agreement if elected. Biden has proposed a US$1.7 trillion-plan to take the US to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, while Trump has aggressively championed the fossil fuel industry, questioned the science of climate change and weakened other environmental protections.
Even if the US rejoins, it will face a credibility gap — after all, it was also an architect of the Kyoto agreement that it never ratified.
That makes it crucial to ensure a shift toward climate action is permanent and not something a future Republican administration will just undo, said Andrew Light, a climate adviser to former President Barack Obama.
According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to have a chance of keeping end-of-century warming below 1.5 degrees, global emissions need to reach net zero around mid-century.