The world will be watching the US presidential election on Nov. 3, but just 24 hours later is another hugely consequential news event when the US is to formally leave the Paris climate agreement.
The administration of US President Donald Trump set the withdrawal in motion with a letter to the UN and, in a coincidence of timing, the US is to exit the day after the election, joining Iran and Turkey as the only major nations not to participate in the agreement.
After decades of negotiations, 197 nations agreed to voluntarily cut the heat-trapping pollution that is causing the climate crisis. Only a handful have not ratified the deal.
It is seen by many as the minimum effort the world needs to make on cutting emissions — but it still took a monumental diplomatic push to clinch the deal.
It came together in Paris in 2015, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The US negotiating team — including then-US secretary of state John Kerry — scrambled to try to Republican-proof the agreement. Then-US president Barack Obama, who was part of 11th-hour efforts calling round other world leaders to join, said in his address that “we met the moment,” called it a turning point, while acknowledging more would need to be done.
The agreement’s goal is to keep the world from becoming 2oC hotter than before industrialization, but its ambition is to limit heating to 1.5oC, a best-case-scenario scientists see slipping out of reach.
Each nation agreed to set its own targets and report back on progress.
There have been some achievements in cutting emissions, but the work done so far is not enough to limit the temperature rise to 2oC.
The world is already about 1oC hotter than the preindustrial period. Despite the Paris agreement, it is on track to become about 3oC hotter.
Already, humans are suffering from what they have done to disrupt the climate, and yet more heating would trigger more intense heat waves, faster sea-level rise that would flood major cities and more extreme weather disasters that would strain government responses.
Trump in June 2017 held a news conference in the White House’s Rose Garden and vowed to exit the agreement, saying it was unfair to the US, and then start negotiations to re-enter it or a new accord “on terms that are fair to the United States.”
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump said.
(Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto responded by saying the city stood with Paris).
However, Trump could not immediately leave the agreement — he can do so only after the November election, in a quirk of timing.
So on Nov. 4 last year the US began the year-long process to pull out of the deal, sending the UN notification that it would formally withdraw on Nov. 4 this year.
In just a 2oC hotter world, according to an analysis of 70 peer-reviewed studies by Carbon Brief, seas could rise an average of 56cm.
About 30 million people in coastal areas could be flooded each year by 2055.
About 37 percent of the global population could face a severe heat wave at least every five years.
About 388 million people could be exposed to water scarcity and 195 million could be exposed to severe drought.
Maize crop yields could fall 9 percent by 2100.
Global per-capita GDP could fall 13 percent by 2100.
So has Trump’s administration tried to tackle the climate crisis? The short answer is no.
During the past four years, the administration has undermined international climate efforts by aggressively supporting fossil fuels.
Domestically, Trump has rescinded or weakened essentially all the major regulations that were meant to encourage a shift away from oil, gas and coal, and toward cleaner sources of energy.
He has eliminated Obama-era rules requiring lower-carbon electricity and vehicles. He has expanded opportunities for drilling and mining.
With another four years as president, Trump could lock in those changes, further delaying action at a time when scientists say it is urgently needed.
The US had promised to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The reductions were meant to be just the beginning of US efforts.
Depending on how deeply the economy is hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the US could see its emissions drop between 20 and 27 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, according to an analysis by the economic firm Rhodium Group.
While the US could technically achieve what it pledged, those reductions are not nearly enough to stall significant global heating.
If every nation made efforts on a par with the US goals, the world would get 3oC or 4oC hotter, according to independent analysis by Climate Action Tracker.
Even without the US government, the power sector has shifted away from coal toward cheaper natural gas and renewable energy — contributing to the drop — but reductions beyond what Rhodium projects would probably require new rules and incentives from the US government.
Former US vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, would immediately move to rejoin the Paris agreement, which would take about 30 days.
He has outlined an ambitious climate plan, but most of it requires sign-off from the US Congress. His proposal would be nearly impossible to implement if Democrats do not take control of the US Senate.
Significant climate legislation would be difficult to pass even if Democrats do have a majority in both the US House of Representatives and Senate, and Biden is in the White House.
Biden has said that he would set in motion plans to cut US emissions to net-zero by 2050 — which is on par with what scientists say every nation in the world needs to do to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.
He wants the electricity system to be carbon-free by 2035.
Biden says he would invest US$2 trillion on clean-energy infrastructure and other climate measures, spending as much as possible in his first four years in office.
He would decarbonize buildings, invest in high-speed rail and try to make the US the top producer of electric vehicles.
If Trump is re-elected and the US remains outside the Paris agreement, other nations might be less likely to pursue aggressive climate policies.
The US is the biggest historical contributor to climate change, even though it has just 4 percent of the world’s population. China is the biggest current emitter.
Beijing is dramatically slowing its domestic emissions growth, although it is also funding new coal plants in developing nations. With the US out of the picture, China could have more geopolitical influence, including in climate negotiations.
It could also benefit greatly from clean-energy manufacturing, particularly if the US continues to fall behind.
Even if the US government is not active in climate efforts, green-minded US states and localities would likely come together to continue to pledge action to the world.
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