US to rejoin Paris climate accord – Expert Reaction

Newly inaugurated US President Joseph Biden has signed an executive order re-entering the country into the Paris climate accord.

The USA was one of 195 countries to sign on to the historic agreement, which former President Barack Obama was instrumental in brokering. However, the Trump administration withdrew from the international treaty in 2017, saying the deal “hamstrings” the US. The agreement is a legally binding treaty that aims to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The SMC asked experts to comment on this news.

Dave Frame, Professor of Climate Change, Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“President Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement is important and will be welcomed by people around the world, but the fact that executive preference plays such a huge role in such an important global policy issue remains a concern. Until Congress can create sustainable, enduring climate policies that put the country on a path to a lower carbon future, concerns about the political fragility of US commitment to climate policy will remain.”

No conflict of interest.

Bronwyn Hayward, Professor of Political Science and International Relations, University of Canterbury, comments:

“President Biden’s executive order to re-enter the Paris Accord is a largely symbolic and surprisingly quick and painless. It means a letter is sent to the United Nations bureau for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and in 30 days the USA becomes a member again of the 196-nation agreement to lower Greenhouse gas emissions and overall global warming to 2 degrees, and preferably just 1.5 degrees Celsius, above what they were back at the beginning of the Industrial revolution in the 1850s-1880s, when the world began emitting large amounts of heat trapping gas from use of fossil fuels.

“As the world’s second largest emitter, as a nation this is an important symbolic step. Ironically, even with former President Trump’s active resistance to control energy use and spending on climate, the states and cities of the USA had continued to make progress even after Trump pulled out of Paris. By November last year, the USA was about half way towards achieving its initial milestone of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28% from the levels in 2005.

“Now, however, with full Presidential support and the newly created position of a Special Envoy in John Kerry to work internationally on galvanising global action on climate goals, we can expect to see the United States ramp up its impact even further.

“A second important executive order signed today reversed the Keystone XL pipeline and put a temporary moratorium on oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These kind of decisions can be made without Senate approval, although an important campaign pledge by Biden to ban new leases and permits to mine for oil and gas mining on Federal lands will be much harder to implement.

“The Biden administration also faces significant challenges in reversing the deregulation of energy use and environmental protections that occurred during the last four years, but Biden has signalled the return of a working party across agencies to consider the social costs of carbon; this means focusing on the impact of fossil fuels on poverty and climate. His administration has also promised to work towards electrification of individual cars (if not mass transport) by 2030.

“Of most significance to New Zealand, however, may be the emphasis Biden’s administration is expected to place on green fair trade, on investing in overseas aid through the green climate fund, and on cutting carbon emissions by at least 40 per cent, if not 50 per cent, by 2030.

“Biden’s administration has signalled real action – so for those who have always advocated New Zealand should be a ‘fast follower on climate’ – it’s now high time we got our running shoes on because as a nation we are out of shape, and the race to a low carbon future just accelerated!”

No conflict of interest.

Adrian Macey, Adjunct Professor, New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, comments:

“Obviously welcome. Internationally, the build up to the next UN climate conference (COP26) will now be given a boost. And [in the US], the expunging of climate change from government agencies and the appointment of senior staff hostile to climate change measures will very quickly be reversed. The regulatory role of government—in contrast to the deregulation by the Trump administration—will be important.

“Note that US and Chinese leadership was a major factor in securing the Paris Agreement. So the US return to high-level engagement around climate change and to the negotiating table is very good news. Any effective international progress needs both the US and China.

“The improvement in relations with China (they could not get much worse!) that Biden should bring about will help.

“Was the Trump administration’s four years wholly negative for climate action? Surprisingly, no. There is one big plus from those four years: Trump’s position on climate actually galvanised a massive commitment by non-state actors, led by cities, businesses, and states, plus NGOs and academia to commit to the goals of the Paris Agreement, and to action.

“The ‘We Are Still In’ alliance started in 2017. These [signatories] represent, at last count, around 70 per cent of US GDP. Important for the immediate future, they have built up both commitment and experience. They were playing the role of climate leadership both at home and abroad, ensuring that there was a US presence.

“I think that this will make for a much better partnerships between these actors and government, including in the design of regulation. These actors have got ahead of government.

“One caveat: don’t expect any early big increase in ‘ambition,’ i.e., spectacular new targets dropped in to the UN. That’s going to need time. The big takeaway is that the US is re-engaged.”

No conflict of interest.