United States at odds with Climate Agreements

Gurinder Kaur*

After being sworn as the United States’ new president, Joe Biden requested the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on the very first day of his term, to which Guterres assented.

Gurinder kaur

Responding to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the then United States President Barack Obama said, controlling global warming was the only common and commendable effort by all countries globally. But the next elected president, Donald Trump, withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as he took over the administration.

He believed that this climate agreement is against United States’ economic growth and will destabilize the US economy causing millions of people to become unemployed. Thus, on November 4, 2020, the United States withdrew from the agreement under Donald Trump’s leadership.

Biden’s reverse move will lead the US to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on February 19, 2021, within the 30 days from January 20. Many European countries have welcomed this move. Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement would mean that the United States will have to abide by the rules and regulations set by the United Nations’ agreement and fulfill its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Suppose the Biden administration is really taking the Paris Climate Agreement seriously. In that case, it should consider the environmental damage done by the Trump administration during the four years.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2018 have increased by 2.6 percent. The reason being, President Trump approved a large number of projects such as coal-fired power plants and the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Such projects generated excessive greenhouse gases.

Trump’s administration dismantled significant climate policies and rolled back more than 100 laws on environmental protection. They even cut off the financial aid to the environmental protection institutions. According to a report of the Union of Concerned Scientists 2020, every person in the United States emits 16.56 tons of carbon dioxide per year, resulting from the American people’s lifestyle and consumption habits.

Developing countries such as China and India emitting more greenhouse gases and turned a blind eye to the agreement due to the US withdrawal decision from the Paris Climate Agreement. China emits the largest share (28 percent) of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and has installed coal-fired power plants. They claimed to cut emissions after 2030, after reaching the peak of its economic growth. According to a July 2019 report of Thomson Reuters, India also planned to increase the coal-fired power generation capacity by 22 percent between 2018 and 2022. These countries have also shied away from their responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Global State of the Temperature

The average global temperature has risen sharply in the last four years due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. According to NOAA’s 2020 annual climate report, seven years from 2014 to 2020 are the hottest years on record. A report of the World Meteorological Organisation titled , ‘The State of the Global Climate 2020‘, the earth’s temperature rose 1.2 degrees Celsius from January to October 2020, but under the influence of La-Nina , the rise in temperature in November and December was lower than in the other months of the year.

The average temperature rise in 2020 was only 0.02 degrees Celsius lower than the hottest year ever in 2016. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also increased rapidly during 2015-2020. In December 2015, the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 401.95 ppm (parts per million), which increased to 413.95 ppm in December 2020. Carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas that is increasing the temperature. Increasing greenhouse gases has raised the average global temperature by 1.00 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution.

US’ State of Temperature

Cold shouldering climate agreements by US have been its disadvantage. The United States is also suffering the brunt of global warming. According to NOAA, in 2020, 22 major natural disasters in the United States caused an estimated 95 billion US dollar damage. Six of the worst wildfires ever occurred in California in 2020, burning 10.3 million acres of forest to ashes. The blaze was so intense that from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the sky was vested with flames and turned ominous shades, from a brownish orange to blood-red that made headlines worldwide.

Wildfire pollution continued to plague the western and the eastern parts of the United States. Hurricanes are recorded at a high number of 31, which hit the United States hard. Currently, the US is experiencing heavy snow and strong cold waves due to the rise of average temperatures in the Arctic region caused by climate change.

Behavioral change of US towards climate agreements

The return to Paris Climate Agreement can be a golden opportunity for the United States to offset the damage caused by global warming in the entire world, including the United States. However, the US’s behavior has been uncertain towards environmental conferences or protocols that have been held to curb global warming. US leaderships have always failed to honor their environmental promises.

At the first Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, all the world’s major developed countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2000 to their 1990 levels. The decision was signed and ratified by the United States envoy. However, the then President H W Bush said that the American lifestyle is not up for negotiation and refused to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol followed this summit in Japan in 1997, which promised that all the world’s developed countries (the United States, Canada, Russian Federation, Japan, all European and other countries) would reduce 5.2 percent greenhouse gases between 2008 and 2012 below 1990 levels. Again, the US vice-president Al Gaur weakened the protocol by downgrading a Clean Development Compliance Fund and advocating carbon market’ flexibility mechanisms’. The United States President Bill Clinton signed this weak protocol and promised to implement it in the country, but the Senate of the United States did not pass it.

Four years later, President George W Bush announced withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Following this, other countries – Japan, New Zealand, and Russian Federation in 2012 also refused to abide by protocol, further undermining its relevance. The second part of the Kyoto protocol was supposed to begin in 2012, but it ended before starting.

As per the Bali Action Plan 2007, the United States’ representatives opposed the imposition of legal binding on climate-related agreements. In 2009 the European countries at Copenhagen raised the concern of the United States’ negligence towards climatic accords. In 2014, an IPCC report warned of the possible natural disasters due to increased climatic negligence impacts.

‘Paris Climate Agreement’ was introduced in a conference held in Paris (France) in 2015. The conference of parties vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All the countries submitted their carbon reduction targets commonly known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to achieve the aim. The targets outlined each country’s commitments to curb emissions through 2025 or 2030, including economy-wide carbon-cutting goals. The conference held during Obama’s presidency, and he praised the move. However, with change in the US administration, the agreement was withdrawn by US in November 2020. Such uncertainty in US behavior has cost the climate, and its return to the agreement in 2020 will help achieve climatic endeavors.

Way forward for US

The new United States President must increase the greenhouse gas emissions cut as agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement. For such move, US should learn from the European countries and New Zealand. The European countries have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent between 1990- 2019, while the opposite is being followed in US. The European countries intends to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. New Zealand is setting an unique example as it has declared a ‘Climate Emergency’ and is working to make the country carbon neutral by 2025.

The United States should now equate its emissions of greenhouse gases, at least on par with the European countries (55 percent cut) on 1990 emissions levels. It should do so in a quick pace than any other country. The nation should ensure that the Green Climate Fund as well as the amount of assistance provided to developing and poor countries affected by climate change natural disasters, be deposited and expeditious efforts should be made to provide these countries with clean technology . The United States administration should also motivate its people to change their lifestyle and consumption habits. Doing so, the US would fulfill its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement in true spirits.

* Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala and Visiting Professor, IMPRI

Picture Courtesy: Duetsche Welle


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

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