Voices for Action

The U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Wednesday. But for how long?

By Nathaniel Keohane, EDF Action Senior Vice President for Climate, and Kelley Kizzier, EDF Action Associate Vice President for International Climate 

No matter the outcome of tomorrow’s election, the United States will formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement the next day — Wednesday, November 4.

That outcome was set into motion more than three years ago, on June 1, 2017, in the White House Rose Garden, when President Trump declared his intention to pull the U.S. out of Paris. Depending on the result of the U.S. election, this may be nothing more than a footnote in history. But when it comes to America’s role in the global fight against climate change, and the overall effectiveness of the Paris Agreement, the contrast in election outcomes couldn’t be starker.

Biden victory

If Joe Biden is elected president, we expect that one of the first things he will do after being inaugurated on January 20 is to announce that the United States will rejoin the Paris Agreement. But simply rejoining is little more than table stakes. A Biden administration will need to do much more to reverse the damage caused by the Trump administration and meet international expectations. 

First, the new administration would need to put forward a new emissions target, known as a nationally determined contribution, or NDC. Article 4 of the Paris Agreement requires each Party to submit and maintain an NDC that should reflect its highest possible ambition.

Determining the NDC is not a check-the-box exercise. The Biden Administration will face enormous pressure from allies to set a target that is both ambitious and credible.

The bar for ambition has been raised in recent weeks, thanks to moves by two of the world’s other major emitters – China and the EU. China recently announced it will achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 and that it will strengthen its pledge under the Paris Agreement – goals that, if met, would represent an enormous step toward what the world needs to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change. Europe has committed to climate neutrality by 2050 and proposed to significantly increase its climate commitment under the Paris Agreement from at least a 40% to at least a 55% reduction on 1990 emissions by 2030.

To keep pace, the Biden administration should commit to a 50% cut in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. This would be commensurate with the target being put forth by the EU, which has a comparable economy to that of the US. A 50% reduction by 2030 would also be in line with candidate Biden’s goal of a net-zero U.S. economy by 2050, which is what the science tells us is necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s long term temperature goals.

The second part of the test is that the NDC is credible. That will require significant investments in climate and clean energy as part of an economic stimulus package expected early next year; strong regulatory actions under existing authorities; and additional action by Congress to secure the emissions reductions needed to meet the 2030 target.

Action by Congress is crucial. The world has watched the United States abandon not one, but two global climate agreements. To be credible on the international stage, US climate action needs buy-in beyond the White House.

Trump victory

While a Biden victory could set the stage for renewed U.S. leadership on climate, a Trump victory would seal the fate of the United States – at least at the federal level – as a country that was isolated from the rest of the world: powerless to shape the international dialogue or direction on climate, and cut out from the global low carbon transition and the economic opportunities provided by green growth.

Under a Trump Presidency, the status quo persists. After all, the withdrawal on the 4th of November only formalizes what President Trump set in motion when he announced in June 2017 that he would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and nothing he has said or done since then has indicated that he’s changed his mind. The United States will not even be in the room for Paris Agreement negotiations and will not have a say in determining its next steps. Even during the bluster of the last four years, America has retained a shred of influence thanks to the professionalism and expertise of the U.S. negotiating team – mainly consisting of career professionals who remain widely respected on key climate issues. A second Trump term would see any residual respect evaporate as the U.S. retreats further.

Meanwhile, the world would move on without the U.S.. The role of China and the EU will have heightened importance as they seek to fill the leadership vacuum. Indeed, it will be crucial that global leaders on climate work together to stifle obstructive voices empowered by a Trump victory.

With Washington having abandoned the field, other American voices would take the lead in the climate fight. States, cities and companies all over America are already taking ambitious climate action, and many have committed themselves to doing their part to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. For instance, the number of corporate net zero pledges has doubled in less than a year. That’s more than 1,500 companies with a combined revenue of more than $11.4 trillion.

Moving forward, these leaders will need to double-down on turning those commitments into real policy progress that can reaffirm U.S. commitment to international allies. They are showing that Donald Trump can pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, but he doesn’t speak for the majority of Americans who demand climate action.

After all, doing nothing is not an option. Any delay just means more devastation to people and nature and solutions get costlier and more challenging with each passing year.