What is the Paris Agreement and why has Biden rejoined the climate pact?

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent in New York
Saturday 30 October 2021 15:07 BST
(AFP via Getty Images)
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President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, one of a sweep of executive orders to tackle the climate crisis.

The executive action saw the US recommitting to the international pact to cut global emissions and get a grip on the climate crisis. 

Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in 2017, calling it a “disaster” for America.

“I will join the Paris Accord because with us out of it, look what’s happening. It’s all falling apart,” Mr Biden said during his first presidential debate with Donald Trump, pointing to the rampant destruction of Brazil’s rainforests, happening in the vacuum of US diplomatic leadership. 

Read more: What are Biden's plans to fight climate change?

Below is a breakdown of the background, significance and future prospects of the Paris Accord - and what it means for the US to re-enter.

  1. What is the Paris Agreement?

    Accord, agreement, deal, goals, pact - call it what you will, it refers to one central aim, agreed upon by almost every nation in 2015, to avoid perilous climate change by dramatically reducing global greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet.

    Countries set their own goals to try to curb global temperature rise, with a collective aim to stay well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit it to an increasingly aspirational 1.5C. 

    The consequences of the worsening climate crisis are happening all around us: melting of polar ice caps, rising sea levels and extreme weather.  

    Countries’ current pledges are not enough to meaningfully tackle the climate crisis. The Paris agreement calls for more ambitious targets, called Nationally Determined Contributions, to be set every five years. 

    The Paris deal has a “ratchet mechanism”, meaning each nation must come out with a bolder target for reducing emissions every five years. Updated NDCs are expected by the end of 2020.

    The Paris deal also provides pathways for richer countries to help poorer ones, some of which are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, to reduced their emissions and adapt to a rapidly-changing planet.

    The human-driven climate crisis has already caused about 1.2C of global heating above pre-industrial levels. The World Meteorological Organisation said in July that there is a 20 per cent chance global temperatures will hit 1.5C in at least one year between 2020-2024.

  2. What did the US agree to?

    The US, the world’s second-largest emitter, pledged to reduce emission levels between 26-28 per cent by 2025 from 2005 levels. It is not on track to reach those goals.

    The European Union pledged to cut carbon pollution in 2030 by 40 per cent from 1990 levels - a greater commitment than the US. The United Kingdom has already exceeded that goal, the AP reported.

    A report by leading climate scientists in 2019 also found that of the 184 climate pledges, 128 were not on track to contribute to reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, including India and China.

    As part of the Paris deal, former president Obama pledged $3bn toward the Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries adapt. Mr Trump moved to withhold $2bn when he became president.

    In 2019, 27 countries announced contributions totalling $9.8bn. The US refused to contribute.

  3. Why did Trump call the Paris Agreement a ‘disaster’ for the US?

    Mr Trump has repeatedly mischaracterised the terms of the agreement, which are voluntary. In October 2019, he called it a massive wealth transfer from America to other nations and dubbed it “one-sided”.

    Mr Trump announced his intention to withdraw in June 2017, saying it was an end to “the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”

    After the announcement a group of interdisciplinary scientists published a report looking at the implications of withdrawing and suggested that by the end of the century, the US could be about 5 per cent poorer with about $8 trillion in losses.

    A report produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for the G20 also found that climate policy can boost growth and employment. The study indicated that G20 nations could see a 5 per cent increase in growth by mid-century with a strategies for carbon reduction and climate resilience.

    “The US agreement is not a tax on the American people. There is no massive wealth transfer,” Climate Advisers CEO Nigel Purvis, who was a lead State Department climate negotiator in the Clinton and George W Bush administrations, told AP. “In fact, the agreement obligates no country to make any financial payments.”

    Regardless, on 4 November, 2019, the Trump administration formally notified the UN it would withdraw after the required one-year waiting period. (Part of the agreement was that no country could pull out in the first three years. Mr Trump did so on the first day possible.)

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