The Paris Climate Agreement: Why We Need to Demand More from Biden – and Ourselves – on Climate Change

by Nash Rougvie


What you can do

  1. Attend protests focused on climate injustices and sustainability.
  2. Track the progress of currently implemented climate plans, and hold public officials accountable when the progress is insufficient.
  3. Find ways you can reasonably change your personal lifestyle in order to reduce your own carbon footprint.

Upon his inauguration on the 20th of January, President Joe Biden immediately performed a plethora of executive actions. Many of these were explicitly promised by Biden on the campaign trail, including a federal mask mandate, halting construction of the border wall, and terminating Trump’s infamous travel ban. Chief among these actions, however, was Biden’s agreement to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, an agreement he played a critical role in creating and promoting during his vice presidency in the Obama administration. The agreement was ultimeley signed by 196 countries in December of 2015 and is considered by many to be a landmark accomplishment in the fight to achieve long term environmental sustainability. [1] [2]

The Biden Environmental Plan

Environmentalism and sustainability were key policy areas in the rhetoric produced by the Biden presidential campaign. This was particularly evident during his primary campaign, as he had to appeal to the 68% of Democratic Party voters who believed climate change should be a top priority. [3] In order to successfully appeal to the majority of the party and mobilize young voters who had a vested interest in the issue, Biden issued an extensive climate plan on his website, describing actions he would take and directions he wants the country to take in the near future.

Biden began his list of policy pursuits with the target of reaching net-zero emissions by the year 2050 – an admittedly ambitious task, but a refreshing indication of intent following four years of climate science denial and refusal to act on behalf of the Trump Administration. Additionally, Biden addresses a plethora of areas that are essential in tackling climate change, including transportation infrastructure, federal investment in green energy initiatives, and the issue of racial inequity that climate change has been shown to emphasize. [4] 

However, despite the breadth of his plan, Biden fails to substantively address many of the issues in an empirical, science-based manner. Ultimately, in many cases, Biden’s “plan” for a certain area is built off of rhetoric, and he provides no statistical goals nor plans to implement and/or enforce the plans. An example that embodies this approach is his sub-point on building what he calls a “stronger, more resilient nation.”

“On day one, Biden will make smart infrastructure investments to rebuild the nation and to ensure that our buildings, water, transportation, and energy infrastructure can withstand the impacts of climate change.  Every dollar spent toward rebuilding our roads, bridges, buildings, the electric grid, and our water infrastructure will be used to prevent, reduce, and withstand a changing climate. As President, Biden will use the convening power of government to boost climate resilience efforts by developing regional climate resilience plans, in partnership with local universities and national labs, for local access to the most relevant science, data, information, tools, and training.”

This framing of an approach is weak in a number of ways. Firstly, it is working towards the esoteric goal of strength and resilience, which cannot be measured nor truly judged. Because of this, it will be impossible to hold Biden accountable on his promise, as there is no singular, definitive way to judge success or failure. This is furthered with open language such as “smart infrastructure investments” and “withstanding a changing climate” which leave a lot to the imagination. Additionally, its reliance on an appeal to pathos points to the ideas here as ultimately serving more as fodder for rhetoric than substantive action. Given the imperative to rely on science in approaching the issue of climate change, the preference given here to emotional appeals is worrying. Finally, the breadth of steps described in this sub-point mean that if this proposal is to be assessed, it would need to be done through a complex, synthetic analysis of all of the policies passed under his administration – something that will likely lead much of the general public to disengage from critical judgement.

Many other plans on the website share this style of emotional communication, including “Stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities”, “Fulfill our obligation to workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution and subsequent decades of economic growth” and “Rally the rest of the world to meet the threat of climate change.” Among his plans, there is only one concrete executive action listed: Rejoining the Paris Climate Accords.

The Substance of the Paris Climate Accords

Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accords on his first day in office, in what was seen as a generally positive step for the country’s growingly pertinent fight against climate change. [5] While it is undeniable that, in relative terms, signing back on to the Paris Climate Agreement was an improvement compared to not participating in it at all, it is necessary to understand the agreement in order to critically assess how effective it ultimately is at achieving its goals, and whether this action is sufficient in meeting global climate targets.

The Paris Climate Agreement is described as “legally binding,” and has been signed by 196 countries. The agreement’s stated target is to ensure that global temperatures do not exceed 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial averages, with the preferred goal of that cap being 1.5 degrees celsius. While temperature increases of this degree will still have negative consequences, such as rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps, and increased water toxicity, it is generally agreed upon as a reasonable and liveable target, especially when compared to increases of 2.5 degrees and more. [6] [7]

The agreement plans to go about meeting its targets through the “5 year cycle” plan, in which affiliated countries submit a list of new policy proposals aimed at reducing their respective carbon footprints. These plans are categorized as “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs. In addition to NDCs, the plan broadly lays out the framework for “long term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies” or LD-LEDS. LD-LEDS plans are not mandatory, and the intended purpose of them is, as stated by the plan, to contextualize the shorter term NDCs that each country implements. 

In addition to holding countries accountable for making and implementing policy goals, the agreement sets out a framework for how countries can operate under a system of mutual assistance. This is to be performed through three key areas: finance, technology, and capacity building. The purpose of this framework is to make these goals more realistic to implement across the board, addressing the unique challenges and situations each participating country may find themselves facing. For example, the financial aspect of this framework serves to aid developing countries with restricted federal budgets in financing ambitious projects.

The accountability of participating countries is addressed in the Enhanced Transparency Framework, (ETF) which will be a platform through which the progress of the policies implemented in the NDCs will be tracked and made public. The idea behind this is that the transparency provided to the public will help hold respective administrations accountable in reaching their goals. This framework will begin reporting in 2024.

The Paris Climate Agreement website also describes what has been accomplished since the creating and ratification of the treaty in 2015. It is important to note that the first cycle of NDCs took place in 2020, and that, because assessment of these policies will not be available via the EFT until 2024, the agreement has yet to see its full effect. Its current progress is described as so: 

“Although climate change action needs to be massively increased to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the years since its entry into force have already sparked low-carbon solutions and new markets. More and more countries, regions, cities and companies are establishing carbon neutrality targets. Zero-carbon solutions are becoming competitive across economic sectors representing 25% of emissions. This trend is most noticeable in the power and  transport sectors and has created many new business opportunities for early movers.” [8]

While it will be difficult to properly assess the success of the treaty within its framework until the first reports from the EFT begin to be released in 2024, the framework of the treaty has given experts enough information to predict and begin to judge its validity and success.

Pitfalls of The Paris Agreement

Despite a supposedly self-enforcing framework and stated ambition to cap global temperature increases to manageable levels, many scientists have been critical of the agreement’s level of ambition, stating that it does not have the tools necessary to feasibly reach its targets in its current form. These criticisms range in scope, from structural critiques of the agreement, to large scale analysis of its predicted effect on global temperature increase, and one-by-one assessment of the 184 submitted NCPs. 

In terms of the structure of the agreement, its mechanisms of enforcement have been the most heavily criticized. Generally, the Paris Climate Accords are too weak to both ensure that NCPs are ambitious enough to reach common global goals and make sure countries follow through on their commitments through any other form than the EFT. An analysis of the treaty’s framework described it as “mostly non-binding on substance but binding on reporting,” and does not note any international legal body that could review or enforce violations of the treaty. The analysis comments that the treaty would be more effective were it “politically binding,” as opposed to “legally binding”. This is the same sentiment implied by the EFT, but with the recognition that the idea of accountability held by the public is a goal that still needs to be achieved. While global polling has shown that roughly two thirds of all people view climate change as an emergency that needs to be addressed, this must be understood in the context of the diverse array of political systems in which these people participate. Not all of these people have the same authority in policy making, be it because of their living in a dictatorship, or some other political institution, such as the electoral college in the United States, that creates inequalities in the weights of voters’ voices. [9] [10]

A recent study carried out by the Universal Ecological Fund examined each of the currently proposed 184 NDCs. The report found that only 20% of the proposals were completely sufficient, meaning that a vast majority of the current NDCs did not reflect the ambition needed to reach climate goals. This reflects both on the weakness of the treaty in terms of unifying the agreements to reach common goals, and the lack of current political will to make the change necessary to stay on track for temperature increase targets. The study criticised the proposals and trajectories of all of the world’s top emitters, including China, India, The European Union, and The United States. Specifically, for the United States, the study concluded:

“In 2015 the United States committed to reducing “GHG emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025”. However, the current administration announced the United States withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and has cut federal regulations meant to curb emissions. State and local efforts are being implemented to try and meet the United States pledge. These efforts are mainly focused on electricity generation and automobile emissions.” [11]

This concerning assessment is reflected in global analyses of the progress of our climate goals. In a synthesis-style report by the United Nations, it was predicted that the current “pledge” system employed on the international level in fighting climate change would produce 3.0 degrees celsius temperature growth within the century, far higher than the Paris Agreement’s stated preference of 1.5 degrees. [12] In order to be on track to meet the goal of 1.5 degree celsius temperature increase, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emissions need to be reduced to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030. [7] Given that the first EFT reports will be released in 2024, and early indications suggest that they will not be positive, it is clear that the Paris Accords have failed in their attempt to curve the impacts of global warming.

What can be Done?

A general lack of will to comprehensively reform the Paris Climate Accords, paired with an intolerable level of global reliance on the agreement to achieve climate goals means that ambitious supplemental action needs to be taken. This action can come in many forms, from expanded commitment from the Biden administration to their climate goals, to direct action taken by citizens to reduce their own carbon footprint and that of their city, state, and country. Tackling climate change is not monolithic by any means, and while international collaboration is critical, it has proven so far to be fairly ineffective at fostering sweeping change.

This same idea can be applied to all levels of government, especially in the republican system employed by the United States. The checks and balances between the branches of government at the federal level, for example, makes it extremely difficult for large-scale popular change to be implemented. Given the urgency needed to meet climate goals, heavy reliance on these inherently bureaucratic systems is somewhat futile, although the change that can be made through these bodies should not be overlooked. Much in the sense that Biden’s signing on to the Paris Climate Accords is a significant improvement on Trump’s complete lack of executive action on climate, pushing for any federal change is better than allowing the federal government to be an active agent of corrosion of climate goals.

In order to more comprehensively approach challenges of sustainability, supplementary or extended regional action is critical. The best example of this in the United States are coordinated efforts between states in New England in creating a climate framework that fits in with IPCC recommendations. These recommendations, the aforementioned 45% reduction from 2010 levels by 2030, and 80% reduction by 2050 in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius over the next century, have been adopted in some form by all New England States, except for New Hampshire. [13] This ambition can be attributed to the political environment of these states, in which 5 have Democratic-controlled state houses and senates, and 3 have a democratic “trifecta government.” (A “trifecta” is when a single party controls a state’s house, senate, and governorship). [14]

Despite the ambition of these New England states, it seems unlikely that enough change can be made even on the regional level. The political and economic circumstances surrounding these states are fairly unique to New England, and the framework they adopt is likely not applicable to the rest of the country. Firstly, the homogenous partizan composition of these state governments is rare for the United States, and it seems unlikely that these plans could be implemented without said homogeneity. Additionally, New England has a very economically prosperous, service based economy, so there is much less of a need to reconcile with the needs of industrial workers or short-term economic hardship than in other parts of the country. Lastly, these plans have similarly questionable enforcement mechanisms to the Paris Climate Agreement, and it is unclear how these states will ensure that these goals are achieved. 

Ultimately, the fate of our climate does not rest in the hands of one specific individual or group, and the forces causing our planet’s destruction are multi-faceted and difficult to identify. Because of this, there is a diverse spectrum of opinions on how to face this challenge, from radical calls to dismantle industrial society, to neoliberal, reformist approaches such as that embodied by the Paris Agreement. [15] While the former may be unrealistic but effective, the latter is insufficient but practical. Because of this, a synthesis of ideas from this spectrum, paired with comprehensive political and extrapolitical action, is needed in order to properly address this issue. 


References

[1]:https://www.nrdc.org/stories/paris-climate-agreement-everything-you-need-know

[2]:https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/20/paris-climate-agreement/

[3]:https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/08/13/important-issues-in-the-2020-election/

[4]:https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/

[5]:https://www.npr.org/sections/inauguration-day-live-updates/2021/01/20/958923821/biden-moves-to-have-u-s-rejoin-climate-accord

[6]:https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2865/a-degree-of-concern-why-global-temperatures-matter/#:~:text=If%20warming%20reaches%202%20degrees,on%20humans%20and%20ecological%20systems.

[7]:https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

[8]:https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

[9]:https://www.climatechangenews.com/2017/07/26/paris-climate-deal-needs-politically-not-legally-binding/

[10]:http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2021/Worlds_largest_survey_of_public_opinion_on_climate_change_a_majority_of_people_call_for_wide_ranging_action.html

[11]:https://feu-us.org/behind-the-climate-pledges/

[12]:https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22070/EGR_2017.pdf?sequen%E2%80%A6

[13]:https://isonewswire.com/2021/01/19/the-new-england-states-frameworks-for-reducing-greenhouse-gas-emissions-continue-to-evolve/

[14]:https://ballotpedia.org/Partisan_composition_of_state_legislatures

[15]:https://orionmagazine.org/article/forget-shorter-showers/

Photo credit: https://news.un.org/en/story/2016/04/527372-un-says-paris-agreement-climate-change-must-aim-long-term-environmental