In reality, the United States ceased to functionally participate in the Paris agreement after President Trump announced our withdrawal at a June 1, 2017 press conference at the White House Rose Garden. The invitation-only event was attended by numerous climate realists, including Joseph Bast, then-president of The Heartland Institute.
As a candidate for president, Trump vowed to take the United States out of Paris if he were elected because, he rightly argued, it was a bad deal for the American people.
Numerous studies showed meeting the carbon-dioxide targets imposed on the United States under Paris would force the premature closure of many of the nation’s least-expensive power plants. NERA Economic Consulting estimated meeting the obligations under the agreement would cost the U.S. economy nearly $3 trillion. And by 2040, the United States would have lost 6.5 million industrial-sector jobs, including 3.1 million manufacturing jobs.
Trump also pointed out the Paris agreement allowed major economic and geopolitical competitors—such as China, India, and Russia, which are among the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitters—to continue expanding their emissions (something they’ve done with gusto), making their economies comparatively more competitive and attractive to investment than the United States.
Trump kept his campaign commitment, and signed the papers to pull America out of the Paris agreement. Yet, as designed by Obama—knowing his time as president was ending and hoping to make it hard for future administrations to withdraw—its provisions made getting fully out of it a lengthy process. As BBC describes it:
Even though the agreement was signed in December 2015, the treaty only came into force on 4 November 2016, 30 days after at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions had ratified it.
No country could give notice to leave the agreement until three years had passed from the date of ratification.
Even then, a member state still had to serve a 12-month notice period.
So, despite President Trump's White House announcement in June 2017, the US was only able to formally give notice to the UN in November last year. The time has elapsed and the US is now out.
To avoid having to submit it to the Senate as a treaty—where he knew it would fail to be approved—Obama claimed it was an executive agreement with its commitments being voluntary. He then did a second end-run around Congress and proceeded to try and meet its emission reduction commitments through regulations. These included (1) the so-called Clean Power Plan, imposed to make it impossible for coal-fueled power plants to continue operating; (2) a huge increase in the federal fuel economy standard, to force all but the smallest gasoline and diesel powered vehicles off the road; (3) a halt to new oil and gas lease sales on federal lands; and (4) new limits imposed on methane emissions from existing natural gas operations on federal lands.
Trump has rescinded and/or modified all of the executive and regulatory actions Obama imposed to meet the Paris agreement.
As for effectively combatting climate change, nothing really changed with the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement. Under Trump, our emissions continued to fall with the increasing use of clean-burning natural gas. In China, India, and elsewhere, new coal plants have been completed, are under construction or being planned, and greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase. Even in Europe and Japan, which pledged to begin significantly reducing emissions by 2020, emissions have risen.
More importantly, as I explained in a Climate Change Weekly edition at the time of its signing, the Paris climate agreement was a sham from the start, doomed to fail to prevent temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius by 2100—a fact the countries signing it knew at the time. It was virtue signaling at its worst—and extremely costly!
A UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report noted even if every country were to strictly abide by their individual commitments to cut or cap emissions under the Paris agreement, temperatures would still rise by 3 degrees C by 2100. UNEP calculated the Paris agreement would provide only one-third of the greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to keep global temperatures from rising less than 2 degrees. According to the report, unless global greenhouse gas emissions peak before 2020 (whoops, we missed that target by a wide margin) carbon dioxide levels would soar beyond the 2030 targets, which the report says would make it “extremely unlikely that the goal of holding global warming to well below 2 degrees C can still be reached.”
If Joe Biden is ultimately determined to be the next president of the United States, he has vowed on his first day in office to rejoin the agreement. However, Biden’s pledge may not be that simple to keep. Just like there was a process for leaving the agreement, there is also a process for rejoining it. Technically, Biden could submit a formal written notice to the United Nations after his inauguration in January that the United States intends to reenter the agreement. Under the terms of the treaty, just 30 days later, America would officially rejoin.
Yet, it is not that simple. Other countries could, under the agreement, set conditions on the United States to rejoin the pact, conditions contained in the original agreement. For instance, the Paris parties could require the U.S. to submit its revised, stricter emissions targets and plans to meet them—targets and plans due this year that the Trump administration did not work on—before rejoining the pact. Since no country, as far as I can tell, including America, is on track to meet their initial emission reduction targets, it will be even harder for them, and a newly recommitted United States, to meet these stricter goals.
In addition, there is the significant matter of America meeting its commitments under the Paris agreement to pay its share of the $100 billion annual Green Climate Fund (GCF), established in 2014, and enshrined in the 2015 Paris agreement. The GCF is a program intended to help developing countries adapt to, and mitigate, changes to the climate. Developed countries were supposed to provide $100 billion annually to the fund, with the U.S. agreeing to cover a disproportionate share of funding—tens of billions of dollars each year. It’s 2020 and, even absent the U.S. share, the fund is far from its $100 billion payment for the year. Before allowing the U.S. to rejoin the Paris agreement, nations could require a newly minted Biden administration to pony up our original commitment, and perhaps even a down payment for next year. Does anyone really think funding the GCF is going to be high on Congress’ to-do list as the nation still struggles to recover economically from the pandemic, and with more budget-busting, deficit-growing, pandemic relief packages in the hopper?
In the end, whether we’re in or out of Paris, nothing other than the climate has really changed. If one believes greenhouse gas emission are causing temperatures to rise, the Paris agreement does not set sustainable targets to keep temperatures rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Biden can cripple the U.S. economy by brining us back into the Paris agreement and attempting to meet America’s original or enhanced emission targets, but he can’t change the weather or the reality that greenhouse gases are going to continue to rise.
SOURCES: BBC; The Heartland Institute; Climate Change Weekly; CBS; CNN; Climate Change Weekly; Climate Change Weekly
Dr H. Sterling Burnett is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.