Joe Biden may become the president-elect of the United States of America tomorrow. The US is the country with the highest historic emissions, the second-highest carbon emissions in the world right now, and a country whose withdrawal from the Paris Agreement happens tomorrow. The Paris agreement being the global agreement to address climate change. Biden wants the US to re-join this agreement. If he becomes president, what does this mean for prospects of addressing climate change?
The first question to ask is, can Biden bring the US back into the Paris Agreement? Yes, all he needs to do is write a letter to the United Nations General Secretary, and the US are back in the agreement in 30 days. If Biden wins the election he will become president on January the 20th, if he were to sign and send this letter promptly, the US could be back in the agreement by late February.
Joining Paris is easy, the much more interesting question is how ambitious Biden will be? Each country sets its own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris agreement, which states how much it will cut its carbon emissions by. By setting the NDC for the US Biden will be indicating what he thinks he can achieve domestically on climate change, and what role he wants the US to play in tackling climate change.
If he sets an ambitious target this would indicate that he wants the US to play a lead role in tackling climate change and in the Paris Agreement, an unambitious target would imply that he just wants the US to have a seat at the table. There is still something valuable about the US having a seat at the table, climate change is a global problem and requires a global response. By re-joining Biden is righting the wrong which is the world’s largest historic emitter not cooperating with other countries to address the problem of climate change. Although others have tried to right that wrong some US cities and universities have taken independent action to meet the demands of the Paris Agreement.
If Biden wins, the US will re-join the Paris Agreement, yet this is not the end, we need to see how ambitious Biden and America want to be. The best-case scenario is one where the US does try to achieve leadership in Paris via ambition and meaningful action, resulting in a well-spirited race with other countries to reduce their carbon emissions. A bad scenario is that the US joins, is not ambitious and undermines confidence in the agreement by failing to achieve its unambitious target. A worse scenario is likely if Biden does not become president, the harm of Trump getting a second term for climate change policy is hopefully a prospect which we will not need to consider.