U.S. formally rejoins Paris Agreement as Biden rolls out ambitious climate program

Increased emissions reduction targets could serve as impetus for other countries to follow suit

Under an executive order from U.S. President Joe Biden, the country's rejoining of the Paris Agreement on climate change enters into force 19 February 2021. Gage Skidmore, Flickr
17 February 2021
17 February 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden has forgone the traditional post-inauguration honeymoon period, issuing more than 40 executive orders within days of taking office.

One of the first directives on his list confirmed his new administration’s intention to formally rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change. This will occur on 19 February 2021 in a landmark move designed to reshape global climate policy for years to come.

The U.S. re-adoption of the key goals set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is widely seen as a curtain-raiser to Biden’s USD 2 trillion clean energy program and environmental leadership drive, which were promised during his election campaign and have since been outlined in an executive order.

The 46th president has acted swiftly to reassure the international climate community of the U.S.’s allegiance by appointing a special envoy for climate and reaffirming his intention to position the environment as the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy through a ‘whole of government’ approach.

President Biden’s agenda includes a plan to host a summit of world leaders early in his tenure in order to raise international climate ambitions before the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) convenes in Glasgow, Scotland, in November this year.

A key element of this diplomatic initiative will be the submission of a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) before the leaders’ summit. This will involve setting a near-term target for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, with enough ambition to match other major economies. The E.U. aims to reduce its carbon footprint by at least 55 percent (compared with 1990 levels) by the end of the decade, while China has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and to peak its emissions before 2030.

The Biden administration has announced plans to make the United States – the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases – a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, but the country has yet to produce an updated NDC for the current decade.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry now serves as President Biden's special presidential envoy on climate change. Iga Gozdowska, Flickr
Former Secretary of State John Kerry now serves as President Biden’s special presidential envoy on climate change. Iga Gozdowska, Flickr

“The participation of the U.S. in the Paris agreement is fundamental to the success of international climate policy,” says Niklas Höhne, a founding partner of NewClimate Institute in Cologne, Germany, and a lead author of assessments published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “If the E.U., China and now also the U.S. provide more ambitious NDCs, then all other countries will need to follow.”

The Climate Action Tracker, an analytical tool co-produced by NewClimate Institute, currently assigns a “critically insufficient” rating to the U.S.’s NDC. This indicates that the current U.S. target is consistent with global warming of more than 4 degrees Celsius, if all government NDCs were in this range. The Paris Agreement aims to limit the temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius this century.

The Biden administration has also announced plans to reconvene the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate – which last met in 2016 – to “pursue green recovery efforts, initiatives to advance the clean energy transition, sectoral decarbonization, and alignment of financial flows with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.” These efforts are expected to roll back subsidies for fossil fuels and stimulate investment in solar, wind and other renewable energies.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from right) addresses the Comité de Paris at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), at which the Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted in 2015. UN Photo
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from right) addresses the Comité de Paris at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), at which the Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted in 2015. UN Photo

“The biggest open issue of international climate policy for the U.S. is its financing of fossil-fuel infrastructure abroad, in particular natural gas infrastructure,” Höhne says. “This is incompatible with the Paris Agreement. What is needed now is a clear commitment not to finance such infrastructure anymore.”

Climate financing will play a key role as the administration aims to increase its support for smaller nations through the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility. With the assistance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. can help developing countries protect critical ecosystems – including the Amazon rainforest – to lower carbon emissions and build resilience to climate change.

However, there is an urgent need not just to increase the amount of new “green” finance pledged and delivered for mitigation and adaptation, but also to reduce the amount of “brown” or “gray” finance flowing around the world – finance that either directly supports emissions-generating activities (brown), or whose impact is unclear (gray), according to Erin Matson, a senior consultant and policy analyst at Climate Focus in Washington, D.C.

“It is not clear that Biden’s administration is making the connection that divestment needs to occur not just in fossil fuels, but also in agriculture, mining, infrastructure and other land use–related projects with net-negative ecosystem impacts,” Matson says.

Another pillar of Biden’s climate policy involves engagement with international partners, including the Group of Seven (G7) and the Group of Twenty (G20), to integrate climate in areas such as clean energy, aviation, shipping, the Arctic, the ocean, sustainable development and migration. The U.S. will also be able to leverage its influence in other areas of foreign policy to encourage climate ‘laggards’ to improve their performance.

The U.S. is expected to work closely together with the United Kingdom – which will host this year’s G7 summit as well as COP26 – in order to mobilize the international community and promote emissions cuts in emerging economies.

“With the U.S. back in the game, it needs to adopt an ambitious target and we can expect it to put pressure on allies such as Japan, Australia and Canada to do the same,” says Peter Betts, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and a former E.U. lead negotiator on the UNFCCC. “This hugely facilitates the task of the U.K. as COP26 president.”

U.S. relations with China, which have been strained in recent years during a trade war between the two countries, will also play a crucial role in renewed efforts to collaborate on global climate policy. The U.S. has indicated it will challenge the fossil-fuel investments of China’s Belt and Road Initiative by offering participating nations alternative financing.

“It’s clear that the broader relationship between the U.S. and China will be a much scratchier one than it was under President Obama,” Betts adds. “But the initial signs are that China is moving in the right direction, for its own reasons. I’m optimistic that there can be forward movement on climate by the superpowers, and perhaps even cooperation, even though their wider relationship might not be as warm as it once was.”


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