As the US Rejoins the Paris Agreement, What’s Next on the Road to COP26?

February 18, 2021 | 12:56 pm
Photo: White House
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

On Feb 19th, the United States will officially be back in the Paris Agreement, thirty days after President Biden signed a declaration to rejoin the agreement on his first day in office. The President has clearly signaled to the world that climate change will be a top tier domestic and international priority, putting the climate crisis at the center of US foreign policy and national security. There’s a lot of ground to make up but the hope of Paris is alive and strong.

John Kerry, a climate champion for our time

Mr. Kerry’s appointment as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate is most welcome. His deep expertise and diplomatic skills are much needed, as is his track record of working with other countries in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation. He has hit the ground running, quickly reaching out to world leaders and setting the stage for a year of extensive consultations—all designed to raise the ambition of global climate action ahead of COP26 in Glasgow later this year. His grasp of climate science, of the climate emergency we are in, comes through clearly.

Most importantly, Mr. Kerry has begun his tenure striking a note of humility. After four years of the US being on the sidelines, the only nation to walk away from the Paris Agreement, that seems appropriate.

The Road to COP26

This will be a year of intense negotiations to help ensure that major emitting nations, like the EU countries, China, the US, the UK, Japan and others, raise the ambition of their international commitments under the Paris Agreement—the so-called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Several countries have already announced target dates to reach net zero emissions, ranging from 2050 (the EU) to 2060 (for China). The current round of NDCs needs to focus on ambitious 2030 goals.

The EU has already announced a goal of reducing its emissions at least 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The UK, host nation to the Glasgow summit, has committed to 68 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

In addition to emissions reduction pledges, richer nations also need to increase flows of climate finance, desperately needed by low- and middle-income nations to help them advance sustainable development goals while making a low carbon transition and building climate resilience. Ten years ago, nations committed to raising $100 billion a year for the Green Climate Fund—unfortunately, actual pledges have fallen well short even as the climate crisis has worsened.

Between now and November, there will be many important opportunities for global climate diplomacy, including the Earth Day Summit announced by President Biden, multilateral fora like the G7 and G20 meetings, as well as bilateral discussions with key players like China and India.

The Earth Day Summit

On April 22, Earth Day, President Biden will host a Leaders’ Climate Summit, aiming to catalyze greater ambition ahead of COP26. The major emitters will be urged to raise their emissions reductions pledges for 2030 and add more detail on the domestic policies they will implement to achieve them. Developing countries—members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum—will also be there to remind the world of their dire plight and the moral imperative for richer countries to act quickly and boldly to help stave off existential threats to people and the planet.

The US is expected to announce its updated NDC ahead of that summit. An ambitious US NDC is the strongest signal the nation can send to show the global community that we are not just back in the Paris Agreement, but in it to do our fair share. It is the single most important thing we can do to reestablish our credibility, foster trust, and catalyze greater action from other nations.

If several major emitting nations act together, committing to significant near-term emissions reductions, the goals of the Paris Agreement can once more be within reach. This coalition of high ambition is what Mr. Kerry and other climate diplomats must strive for this year.

Meanwhile losses and damages from climate related disasters are mounting worldwide, as heatwaves, floods, storms, droughts and wildfires worsen. The deadly and catastrophic flooding unleashed by melting Himalayan glaciers, compounded by destructive development choices, is but one recent reminder of how climate change is wreaking havoc here and now. The US experienced a record-setting 22 extreme weather and climate related disasters last year that each cost a billion dollars plus and killed at least 268 people.

In a year where the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis is causing devastation around the world, our climate ambitions must be tied to delivering immediate benefits to people in need. Good paying jobs, clean and climate-resilient infrastructure, investments in improving public health, innovation. Targeting investments and benefits for communities that have been left marginalized due to long-standing systemic racism. Ensuring we treat fossil fuel dependent workers and communities fairly as we transition toward clean energy. We can do all this, if we invest in a well-funded equitable and just green recovery.

An appropriately high bar for US climate action

To be taken seriously on the world stage, to live up to our responsibilities in this moment, to be true to the science and to act fairly, the US must commit to reducing its emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. That is a goal that can be achieved, if we put our mind to it. It will take not just technological shifts but also shifts in our economy, our institutions and our society. Addressing the climate crisis is also about addressing long-standing inequities and creating a better world—the status quo is not working for all too many people.

Achieving deep, swift emissions cuts will take an all-of-government approach, as well as action from Congress, from states, from businesses. Gina McCarthy, President Biden’s national climate advisor, is no doubt hard at work figuring out the most ambitious domestic actions we can take to credibly back up a robust NDC.

These domestic policies should be designed to deliver not just climate benefits but also broader economic and public health benefits. A stunning recent study from researchers at Harvard University and the University College London shows that, in 2018, 8.7 million people died from exposure to particulate matter pollution from fossil fuels. China with 3.9 million deaths and India with 2.5 million deaths led these grim statistics. Here in the US, 13.1 percent of deaths in 2018 were attributable to fossil fuel pollution, with a harsh health burden on young children. Even without the climate crisis looming, this is a compelling enough reason to transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy. Meanwhile, if we enact strong labor standards and ramp up investments, the fast-growing clean energy industry can be a source of good paying jobs.

We must also deliver international climate finance: firstly, we must make up the deficit of $2 billion (out of a total of $3 billion) that was promised by the Obama administration to the Green Climate Fund but never delivered after the Trump administration took over. And then we need to double that initial pledge—as some other rich nations have done—and provide at least $6 billion over the next four years.

This year, the US must also stop standing in the way of progress on negotiations to acknowledge the burden of loss and damage to developing countries on the frontlines of climate change. This aspect of the international climate negotiations has repeatedly foundered as richer countries, including the US, continue to obstruct and deny their responsibility to provide compensation for climate impacts already underway due to their past emissions. Mr. Kerry has acknowledged these impacts. President Biden has issued an executive order on planning for the impact of climate change on migration, asking for a report on “climate change and its impact on migration, including forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation.” Now we need to do more to get the funding and global governance and human-rights-centered legal frameworks in place so that people in poorer nations will not be left coping in an ad hoc way with repeated climate caused disasters, triggering loss of livelihoods, food and water scarcity, and displacement.

There’s much more the US can do, including sharing technical know-how, data and tools to help developing countries cut emissions and become more climate resilient.

High-stakes international diplomacy

Constructive engagement between the US and China may be the most important aspect of securing success this year. China’s surprise announcement last September that it aims to reach net zero emissions by 2060 is a welcome sign. President Xi has also signaled that China’s emissions would peak ‘before 2030.’  Nudging China toward an earlier peaking date for its emissions will be a valuable step forward. Both China and the US should commit to stop financing international fossil fuel projects, especially coal projects—while also reorienting finance toward clean energy instead. Both countries are global leaders in renewable energy deployment and need to double down and accelerate that momentum already underway.

The recent announcement that Xie Zhenhua will return as China’s Special Envoy for climate change is a very good sign. Mr. Xie and Mr. Kerry have a long-standing relationship and are both veterans of the Paris Agreement negotiations. The EU will also play an important role, with a strong emissions reduction target and a commitment to a green economic recovery. Alok Sharma, the COP26 President designate, is also engaging intensively with global leaders, including a recent trip to India.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still a grave threat, there is some uncertainty about whether COP26 can take place safely in-person. Moving the COP to an online event would pose significant hurdles to many developing country participants, where internet connections may be slow or unavailable; other barriers such as access to simultaneous translation and time zone differences could also be challenging. In complex and difficult negotiations, there is simply no substitute for face-to-face discussions. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this, but it would be wise to prepare some options given the hard lessons from the last year of the pandemic. We must keep the momentum going this year, regardless of whether there is an in-person COP or not. Nations must submit new and enhanced NDCs well before the end of the year.

It’s time, past time

With climate change, sometimes it can seem that we have been in this place all too often—this place of knowing on one hand so clearly what we must do, and yet seeing our political leaders fall short. We’ve run out of time for excuses. The politics and the policies simply must bend to the science.

This time can be different. If our governments are guided by the science, if major businesses join in to do their part and stop standing in the way of progress, if we commit to embedding equity and justice in our climate policies, if many of the solutions we need are already affordable and widely available, if we build a broad and diverse climate movement, if a few powerful billionaires join the fray, if Janet Yellen becomes Treasury Secretary…

Oh wait, that is all already happening!

Today, I am hopeful. And I will raise a toast at 3pm on Friday when John Kerry and UN Secretary-General António Guterres celebrate the United States’ reentry into the Paris Agreement.