On his first day in the Oval Office, President Joe Biden signed an array of executive orders to overturn several of the Trump administration’s most egregious environmental rollbacks. The third one he signed set the U.S. on course to rejoin the Paris Agreement.
To rejoin the agreement, Biden’s administration will send a letter to the United Nations, triggering an official return process that will take just 30 days. But that’s just the first step both to rejoining and being an effective party to the agreement. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has wasted four valuable years not pursuing climate action, making it easier for polluters to emit planet-warming gases instead of harder. During that time, the crisis has become all the more urgent.
“Now, the Biden administration, really has the responsibility to show the world that the U.S. is a serious about taking action on climate change,” Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director at the nonprofit Corporate Accountability, said. “And that means that the U.S. needs to show that it’s ready to take action and with what its fair share of action should be.”
When the U.S. signed onto the agreement under President Obama, it pledged to lower its emissions by at least 26% by 2025 compared with 2005 levels. Even at the time, scientists knew that commitment was insufficient to meet the agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures. The international climate treaty went into effect just days before President Trump was elected. Shortly after taking office, Trump pledged to pull the country from the accord, beginning an exit process which was only finalized this past November.
Though the climate treaty is far from perfect—it’s full of non-binding, insufficient commitments and language benefitting corporate polluters—it was still a big deal for the U.S. to leave it. As the second-largest current greenhouse gas emitter and largest historical polluter, it bears a huge share of responsibility for addressing the climate crisis. The nation’s pledged emissions cuts also accounted for roughly 20% of the treaty’s projected global reductions.
Now, the nation will re-enter the agreement at a crucial time, when countries are updating their “nationally determined contributions,” or pledges to reduce emissions. If Biden wants to show he means business, he should take the opportunity to strengthen the nation’s goals.
It’s not clear when the Biden administration will announce its new emissions target, but it must do so before the UN’s international climate talks in November this year. Under the treaty, nations agreed to reconsider their commitments every five years. The pledge the U.S. makes will be a huge signal to the world on if the country is ready to meet the scope of the crisis.
Biden has pledged to bring the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. According 2020 analysis from the Rhodium Group, to keep pace with that goal, the nation would need to decrease its emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030. That amounts to a cut of about 3% every year. If Biden is serious about his stated goals, we can expect he will enshrine them in the nation’s Paris pledges.
But the reality is that the crisis will require even more than that. In late 2019, the UN warned in a report that to avoid catastrophic levels of warming, the world will have to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% every year for the next decade. Last month, more than 100 environmental, human rights, and climate justice organizations across the U.S. sent a letter to the Biden administration calling on the new president to make a bold pledge: achieving a 195% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. The letter lays out cutting domestic emissions by 70% and then achieving the remaining 125% drop by providing funds for developing countries to decarbonize.
That level of commitment seems unlikely. But regardless of where Biden’s pledge falls, there are a number of actions he could take very quickly to get the U.S. on track to meet whatever the emissions target is. On his first day in office, Biden signed an order to revoke the Keystone XL pipeline’s permits and instate a moratorium on drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Those are the first steps in what must be a holistic plan to halt or wind down all planned fossil fuel infrastructure and drilling rights on federal land.
In addition to these federal actions, under the Paris Agreement, the Biden administration could up the country’s commitments to helping poorer countries finance their transitions away from dirty energy. Under Trump, the U.S. ended its contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which is the UN’s grant-making body that provides resources for international climate action. Reinstating that funding—and increasing it—would help the world turn away from fossil fuels more rapidly and in an equitable manner.
“The executive administration should lead the way on this, becoming an international leader on climate finance,” Madhusoodanan said. “That would ensure countries in the Global South that have been hit worse by climate change can move forward in their plans for a just transition.”
In addition to working to reduce emissions here and abroad, the Biden administration should pledge to help the world with climate adaptation. This month, UN climate scientists released a report warning that on this front, the world is way behind.
“Climate change is happening, and even if we reduce emissions, it’s going to take a while for those emissions reductions to take action,” Daniel Bresette, executive director at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, said. “So as the world gets warmer, we should include thinking about what we can do in the near term to adapt and improve our resilience to the impacts of climate change.”
In particular, he said, the Biden administration should look to support policies that will boost safety and result in emissions cuts. Conserving wetlands, mangroves, and forests, for instance, would help communities handle the climate crisis by soaking up increased rain and rising seas, and would also ensure we have vegetation to suck up atmospheric carbon. Officials should prioritize these projects in areas most vulnerable to the climate crisis.
“Throughout his campaign, Biden has vowed to put both science and justice at the center of his policies,” Madhusoodanan said. “If we stand a chance of responding to this crisis adequately, then we need action that that really rises to that challenge.”