Climate change is a persistent threat and its impacts are damaging the environment and worsening existing inequalities in the world. Rapidly melting glaciers in the North and South Poles is a major example where climate change is showing its disastrous effects. The snow is melting three times faster than the global average in the Arctic signaling higher temperatures, rising sea level, and more frequent and powerful storms in the future. Similarly, increased levels of carbon dioxide emissions and shifts in global temperatures are affecting crop production and nutritional content. Resultantly, the world food supply chains may be impacted which is likely to worsen the livelihoods of vulnerable communities.
The Paris Agreement marked a milestone in President Obama’s environmental agenda when a consensus was reached that the world needs to address the impending threat of climate change. Prior to the 2015 Paris Agreement, it was projected that the global temperatures would increase 3.6 degrees Celsius by 2100. The Paris Agreement aimed to keep the global temperature rising less than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally below 1.5 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial times.
It obliged its 195 member states to formulate nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by 2020 based on their political and technical capabilities in order to reduce carbon emissions.
The United States made significant efforts to make this agreement possible and helped other countries to join this initiative back in 2015. Ironically, it became the only member to withdraw from the agreement under former President Donald Trump in 2017. According to Trump at the time, the agreement was incompatible with his “America First” agenda and had the potential to negatively impact the American economy.
In his inaugural speech on January 20, President Joe Biden stressed that there was a dire need to respond to a “climate in crises.” His seriousness towards this issue is apparent from the fact that climate change has been marked as the number two priority of the White House and his team comprises a large number of experts on climate change.
On his first day in the White House, Biden initiated the process to rejoin the Paris Agreement. He has, till now, reversed a number of orders issued by former President Donald Trump which he found adversarial to his policies on climate change such as building the Keystone XL pipeline, supporting federal oil and gas leasing, weakening the Clean Air Act, revoking executive orders that limited carbon emissions, and delaying setting fuel standards for transportation. President Biden has also expressed his desire to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Net-zero refers to achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere.
The ongoing efforts by various member states have reduced the end of the century projected figure to 2.9 degrees Celsius. Interestingly, in 2020, global carbon emissions declined by 7% due to COVID-19. Limited industrial activities and mobility due to lockdowns led to lesser pollution which suggests that achieving net-zero is not impossible, but it will require more effort and political will.
The U.S. withdrawal from the agreement was a major blow to the climate change regime. In terms of carbon emissions, the U.S. is ranked number two – second only to China. Americans constitute only 4% of the world population but are responsible for one-third of the excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Hence, its absence from this regime was adversely impacting the efforts to neutralize carbon emissions from the atmosphere, even if it was for a period of three years.
Since the U.S. is a primary source of carbon emissions, there is a pressing need for the country to divert attention on the domestic front, where its major sources of emissions are: transportation; methane, oil, and gas wells; and power plants.
Decarbonizing the economy with renewable sources of energy is an urgent need of this millennium, and considerable effort is required in this regard.
It is also vital that more investments are pushed to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) and come up with more renewable energy sources. The U.S. can play a major role in this regard by financially assisting the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries with their NDCs.
President Biden has signaled that he is committed to a U.S. leadership role in addressing climate change. However, it is going to be a demanding task and he may encounter backlash from Republicans and energy lobbyists. The fact that the Democrats only hold 50 seats in the U.S. Senate may also pose an obstruction to his climate agenda. Biden may have to rely more on executive orders to achieve some of his climate change agenda.
President Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement is a good omen for the planet, but it must be backed by meaningful actions. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions and the development of more innovative research and development must be expedited. President Biden must set achievable targets which inspire other states to step up their NDCs.
Several developing countries, like Pakistan, are not major carbon emitters but are suffering the impacts of climate change. They need both financial and infrastructural cooperation from the U.S. in order to reduce their vulnerability and play an effective role in the fight against climate change.
The efforts towards tackling this global crisis will take a considerable time before some meaningful and positive impacts can be observed. A green, clean future relies upon the actions taken today in order to foster a sustainable environment for our future generations.
Shaza Arif is a Researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). The article was first published in International Policy Digest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org