Joe Biden, only a month into his first term as 46th president of the United States, has spared no time in beginning to repair some of the political and environmental damage caused by his political predecessor. Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2017 sparked global outrage, and in 2020 the US officially withdrew. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement, drawn up in Paris in 2015, frames global targets to improve action to mitigate, finance and adapt to growing pressures from climate change.
Originally signed by 196 member states, the agreement devolves local responsibility to each state, with the collective and overarching intention of preventing global average temperatures rising by more than 2oC. Any more than this would see catastrophic and irreversible impacts across the globe, such as increasing sea levels causing floods and land loss, and increased natural disasters like forest fires and intense tropical storms. Despite Covid-19 shutting down world economies and cutting global annual emissions by around 7% in 2020, to avoid reaching a 2oC increase, global emissions will need to continue to repeatedly decrease by 7% every year for the next decade (Columbia.edu, 2021).
The simple answer is emission inequality. In terms of absolute emissions, the US is the second largest polluter after China, responsible for 15% of total global emissions (OurWorldInData.org, 2020). Per capita, emissions for the US are ranked 2nd globally. This may come as somewhat of a surprise, given that the US is such a developed country with advanced technology and extensive climate laws. However, consumer behaviour research shows that around 39% of the population, a worrying 129 million people, are not concerned by climate change, and 20% believe that human activity plays little to no role at all increasing global emission levels (Pewresearch.org, 2019). As such, American society continues to be a major contributor to climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol, formulated in 1997 by the UNFCCC, first introduced the concept of carbon trading. The idea was that member states would be issued with an emission quota in the form of ‘carbon credits’. Members would not be allowed to exceed this quota without purchasing additional credits. The problem that arose was that wealthy countries with high emission levels were able to buy credits to increase their quotas from smaller poorer countries, often with lower emission levels. This created a flawed system and did not truly tackle the underlying issue, that wealthier developed countries are still not on track to sufficiently reduce emission levels, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement highlighted this inequality.
In addition to this, by rejoining the agreement the USA is sending out an important message, one that the world will listen to. As such a powerful and influential state, this sets an optimistic precedent that will hopefully inspire and encourage other nations to take action also. Biden has already pledged that the USA will become a net zero state by 2050, and after a year of wildfires, coastal flooding, ice storms and hurricanes, taking steps to mitigate the effects of climate change are more important than ever. Led by Michael Regan, former environmental regulator, the US office looks promising in its strive to amend and improve current environmental policies.
Whilst states need to take individual responsibility for their sustainability efforts, international collaboration will also be crucial in preventing emission levels from reaching disastrous and potentially irreversible levels. Other key players in the climate conversation such as China, India, the UK and Australia must also increase internal pressure on climate laws, and can assist with the sustainable development of other emerging economies.