PATH BACK TO PARIS
Edoardo Campo Lobato
Earlier this month, the United States became the first and only nation in the world to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the historic international accord on climate change. The landmark agreement, which the United States joined in 2015 together with more than 190 other nations and the European Union, aims to limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels through non-binding national targets. During his campaign, President-Elect Joe Biden pledged his commitment to rejoin the accord on his first day in office.
It is worth considering the various implications of rejoining the Paris Agreement and exploring the steps that the United States may take to reposition the country as an international leader on climate action. Moreover, it is necessary to discuss the potential commitments and policy actions the US could take while factoring in the political, economic, and social obstacles that must be overcome.
To lead this discussion the independent research institution Resources for the Future conducted a seminar inviting a distinguished set of panelists. The event was moderated by the New York Times climate and environment reporter Coral Davenport who drew on the expertise of Jonathan Pershing , former lead US negotiator to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and former Special Envoy for Climate Change at the US Department of State; and Kelly Sims Gallagher , former Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and former Senior China Advisor in the Special Envoy for Climate Change office at the US State Department.
To contextualize this precise moment in US history it is necessary to state that the American president is heavily influential in setting the tone of international climate negotiations. On the campaign trail President-elect Joe Biden has expressed honest intentions to approach a climate aggressive agenda. Logistically, it will not take much for the United States to re-enter the Paris Agreement. Nevertheless, the past four years have damaged US credibility in the global diplomatic community. In order to regain back its leadership position Biden needs to put forward a concrete agenda which meets ambitious climate commitments. Obama originally had mid-century targets, it is believed that Biden will need to elevate the stakes with a series of credible climate pledges and will have to articulate a plan on how he plans to reach the announced goals. Kelly Sims Gallagher has frequently stated that on the runup to the COP21 negotiations were in a virtuous circle with many countries wanting to demonstrate climate leadership. Although many continued to declare newly improved pledges, Trump’s exit from the Paris Accord demoralized climate goals and took off pressure from various countries. She urged a restart in policy implementation in order to adhere to progressive targets.
Apart from returning to the international table Biden will face a lot of obstacles at home. While it is imperative that he unravels existing climate deregulations, the reality is that the incoming administration will encounter numerous difficulties in passing climate legislation. Nonetheless, Jonathan Pershing holds optimistic beliefs regarding domestic environmental policy. He argues that many of the sectors that have to become climate friendly can be reformed with executive power and state regulations. Moreover, much like the American Recovery Act, stimulus packages will heavily contribute to investing in infrastructure and innovation. A huge amount can be done to advance the low carbon agenda through these regulatory programs such as the electrification of the transportation sector, the penetration of cheaper renewable energy sources and greater building efficiency standards. All these investments would put people back to work in a beneficial low carbon fashion. In addition, many of these measures can be taken on by individual states.
The seminar then moved on to the necessity of trust for the effective workings of the Paris agreement. Both panelists agreed that there was no need of inspectors to maintain the credibility of the pledges taken on by each country. Independent accounting already takes care of that with very accurate information, or also proxy data, on how each nation is behaving. Whether it is renewable energy prices, inflows of oil, sales of electric vehicles or the construction of coal power plants, transparency is not to be considered a problem. The US exit has not stopped countries from reporting nor from submitting information about their commitments, demonstrating the robustness of the system. It was noted the clear distinction between the climate agreement regime and the arms control one. The main issue lies in determining whether certain countries are not integrating climate friendly agendas or if they are hampered by insufficient financing. The advantage of having long-term targets is it allows you to backtrack and calculate the steps necessary to reach those goals. China has been very good at this with their detailed five year plans which will signal the social, technological and economic transformations the country will need to undertake in order to be in line with their commitments. By plotting their future objectives they are able to effectively communicate and mobilize the country in working towards this transition. Other countries, such as Ethiopia, will need help in approaching development plans with low-carbon financing. Namely, it must be acknowledged that funding has radically diminished. Existing climate financing facilities need to drastically increase the scale of their contribution as investments are currently insufficient to seriously tackle the problems climate change poses. As it becomes increasingly clear that the private sector will play a major role, novel financial schemes must be enacted in order to provide the resources so desperately needed.
During the discussion Coral Davenport brought up the political acceptability issue regarding carbon tax initiatives. Although being a very powerful economic solution in the climate policy toolkit, political limitations bar it from being implemented in many countries. In theory, carbon pricing does work while also generating additional revenue for green investments. The audience later asked whether the US could lead and adopt a climate club program, as often proposed by the Nobel laureate William Nordhaus, in which members established a mutual carbon price and imposed tariffs on those who would not enter the club. Both panelists dismissed the feasibility of such agreement on the basis of the complications that would arise and the current absence of any meaningful climate legislation.
The conversation later shifted to youth climate movements, such as the Sunrise Movement and Great Thunberg’s Friday for Future, which advocate for greater climate change awareness while demanding that substantial policy action be taken. Kelly Sims Gallagher was appreciative of the impatience they have expressed and their particular dedication to social equity. Nobody up to date has proposed a thoughtful way to an economic and social transition that includes everyone and can benefit all members of American society. Moreover, these movements are a testament to how political inaction has led to the scenario in which the immediate consequences of climate change are already being faced today. For this precise reason, the United States finds itself in a situation in which they are required to take measures of such large magnitude. The upcoming return to the Paris Agreement is simply the first step.
The Path Back to Paris –
Exploring the role of the United States as an international leader on climate action