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US rejoins Paris accord in key climate year

February 3, 2021

As Biden leads the US officially back into the Paris Agreement, the world’s major economies are now committed to cutting emissions. Could 2021 be a turning point for climate action?

US President Joe Biden photographed between some trees
US President Joe Biden changed the course of US climate policy within hours of taking office at the start of 2021Image: Susan Walsh/AP/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden has lost no time in getting to work on reversing four years of former President Donald Trump's pushback on climate change policy. Following an executive order signed on his first day in office, the country today officially rejoins the Paris climate agreement. Under Trump’s orders the US left the treaty in November last year.   

He has also set a climate neutral target of 2050 for the US, cancelled the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, and announced an international climate change conference for Earth Day, April 22, solidifying his commitment to global cooperation.

With Biden in the White House, 2021 "is likely to be the biggest year ever for climate change policy," according to Tim Gore of the Brussels-based green think tank The Institute for European Environmental Policy.

Last year already saw big steps forward. By the end of 2020, two-thirds of the world's emitters had pledged to cut emissions in the long term. The landmark Paris Agreement signed by 195 countries in 2015, committing to limit global temperature increases to maximum 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, also came into effect in 2020.

Countries have made various pledges to cut emissions
Under President Joe Biden, the US has matched the pledges of many other global emitters

Climate pledges

As part of the agreement, each country is required to submit a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) every five years — a short-term goal on how this will be achieved. After the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, was postponed to November 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, countries have a little more time to submit updated NDCs — including, now they have rejoined, the United States.

"In terms of NDCs, every country now needs short-term ambitions that are in line with long-term goals," climate scientist and founding partner of the German NewClimate Institute Niklas Höhne told DW.

Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the climate and energy program at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed that short-term commitments are key.

"By the time we get to COP26, we need major emitters like the US and the EU to have stepped up with new ambitious targets," Cleetus said. "The Biden administration should join hands with the EU to form a highly ambitious coalition of the willing."

All eyes on Biden's next move

All parties are curious what goals Biden will set for the next decade to make his long-term targets achievable. His administration has already indicated an aim to make the US power sector climate neutral by 2035. The EU, which submitted an updated NDC in December 2020, aims to cut all emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

Cleetus and Gore both singled out transport policy as one vital area for both the US and the EU in achieving their long-term targets.

"Transport is the biggest growing source of emissions in the US and the EU," Gore pointed out. "We can expect some big announcements this year on how both Biden and the EU legislate on CO2 emissions from vehicles."

"And we also need governments to encourage and incentivize the private sector to step up," Cleetus pointed out. "Auto manufacturer General Motors has already made an ambitious announcement to make [most of] its vehicles electric by 2035."

Another key Biden pledge, which has been reflected to various degrees by other major emitters around the world, is the focus on rebuilding communities currently based around fossil fuel economies. Biden has announced a federal work group for the economic revitalization of coal and power communities in the US, Cleetus explained.

"We have to make sure we are investing in a fair transition for these communities — and this is just as much of an issue in countries like Germany or China," he added.

A coal miner in Kentucky, United States, photographed in 2014
Coal mines were once major employers across the Appalachians in the eastern United StatesImage: picture-alliance/AP Images/D. Goldman
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits a former coal mine
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to phase out coal production by 2038 at the latestImage: Getty Images/Hauter-Pool

International contributions must be 'fair'

While the US and the EU are single-handedly responsible for a great deal of the world's emissions, domestic green policies alone will not go far enough in tackling the global crisis.

In line with the fair share policy outlined in the Paris Agreement, major emitters like the US and the EU must focus more on their international contributions to countries in the Global South, Harjeet Singh, climate change lead for anti-poverty NGO Action Aid, told DW.

"The current US target is actually around one-fifth of its fair share," Singh said. "If one country has historically occupied more ecological space, then that country has to do more to help developing countries."

Singh cited the example of India which, with an economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and Cyclone Amphan in 2020, needs climate finance to achieve green infrastructure goals.

"There are two things that need to be in the NDC: A domestic and an international contribution," climate scientist Höhne explained. "I don't think it is yet fully understood by some developed countries that the NDC can only be fair if it involves international contributions."

Cleetus believes that Biden's government is aware of this responsibility and the importance of "climate justice."

"Biden's special envoy on climate change, John Kerry, has talked about the moral imperative of the climate crisis. This shows the Biden administration is willing to pay its fair share," she said.

What will China do?

Aside from the complex issue of climate finance, major emitters can also work on a global scale by setting good examples.

"Lots of countries are holding their cards close to their chest at the moment, waiting to see what the US does with its NDC — none more than China," Gore said.

China surprised the world in late 2020 by announcing a target to be carbon neutral by 2060. Japan and South Korea quickly followed with their own long-term emissions-cutting pledges.

"The big question in the Chinese context is when they will peak their emissions," Gore added. "It makes all the difference if that happens closer to 2025 or closer to 2030."

Singh also sees Biden's role as highly influential. "Biden's administration will push other countries into taking action. They can no longer hide behind the US," he said.

Former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro both denied the existence of climate changeImage: Alan Santos/dpa/picture-alliance

Höhne gave the example of Brazil, which under President Jair Bolsonaro has "gone backwards" by putting forward an NDC that is less ambitious than its previous target. Bolsonaro, like former US President Trump, has denied the existence of human-made climate change. But with Trump out of the White House, Höhne suggested that even  leaders like Bolsonaro may be forced to step up and take action.

"When the US and China put forward their NDCs, all other countries will have to put something ambitious forward too," he said.

A fire tears through the Amazon rainforest
Illegal deforestation and devastating forest fires have become more common in Brazil's Amazon rainforest in recent yearsImage: Christian Braga/Greenpeace

The power of the people

Leaders like Bolsonaro may also face pressure from home. "It is no longer possible for a democratic government to go to its voters and say they won't do anything on climate change," Höhne said.

A January 2021 survey by the UN Development Agency — the People's Climate Vote — showed that 64% of people around the world believe that climate change is a global emergency, a number that is even higher for those under 18.

"The time for climate denialism is long gone," Harjeet Singh said. "Countries can no longer make excuses."

This is an updated version of an earlier article.

Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Elliot Douglas
Elliot Douglas Elliot Douglas is a video, audio and online journalist based in Berlin.