Trans-Pacific View | Environment

As World Watches Messy US Presidential Election, Washington Exits the Paris Agreement

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he favors signing the U.S. back up to the Paris Agreement.

Catherine Putz
As World Watches Messy US Presidential Election, Washington Exits the Paris Agreement
Credit: Pixabay

On November 4, 2019 the Trump administration notified the international community of its intent to exit the landmark Paris Agreement. The U.S. withdrawal, per the agreements terms, would take effect after a full year had passed. And so, today, on November 4, 2020 — as ballots were still being counted in key states across the country after the contentious November 3 presidential election — the United States formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement.

The global pact was signed in 2015 and took effect on November 4, 2016 committing 189 countries to the goal of keeping the increase in average temperatures worldwide “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to “strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change.”

The Paris accord requires countries to set their own voluntary targets for reducing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. The only binding requirement is that nations have to accurately report on their efforts.

Nevertheless, early in his presidency Donald Trump lambasted the agreement as unfair to the United States.

The United States is the world’s second biggest emitter of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide, after China.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In a June 1, 2017 statement, Trump criticized the agreement which had been signed under the administration of his Democratic predecessor, President Barack Obama. “The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production,” Trump said.

While Trump announced in 2017 that the U.S. would stop implementing the agreement, the pact itself included a provision that no country that had ratified it could withdraw for the first three years.

On November 4, 2019 — the very first day possible — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo triggered Washington’s formal exit. While echoing Trump’s mantra that the agreement was bad for American workers and the U.S. economy, Pompeo said the U.S. had successfully reduced emissions. “U.S. net greenhouse gas emissions dropped 13 percent from 2005-2017, even as our economy grew over 19 percent,” he said.

It’s important to note that virtually none of that drop occurred during the Trump administration and dramatic declines in emissions in 2020 are easily ascribed to the economic and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic. That said, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in January 2020, U.S. emissions were then forecasted to have fallen in seven of the 10 years from 2012 to 2021. In 2018, emissions rose but in 2019 declined and were forecasted to do so in 2020, even before the pandemic. 

These topline numbers and the Trump administration’s statements, however, don’t tell the whole story. After Trump’s 2017 declaration of intent to exit the Paris Agreement, a group of states — eventually numbering 24 states plus the territories of Puerto Rico and American Samoa– formed the United States Climate Alliance and pledge to uphold the agreement. Arguably, continued declines in emissions in the U.S. are in part due to states hewing to the accord still.

Scientific American noted in an article about the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement that “The acceleration of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions on Trump’s watch has been blunted by state- and city-level efforts, a burgeoning renewable energy market and the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic downturn.”

In the same vein, the Climate Action Tracker commented that “U.S. emissions in 2020 will be lower as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Trump Administration’s continuous rollback of climate policy and its response to the pandemic will counteract some of the drop in emissions.”

In 2019, Pompeo stressed that the U.S. would “continue to offer a realistic and pragmatic model” for lower emissions while maintaining open markets and innovation. “We will continue to work with our global partners to enhance resilience to the impacts of climate change and prepare for and respond to natural disasters.”

But partner countries don’t see Washington’s decisions in the same light. In 2017, when Trump announced his intentions for the U.S. to exit the Paris Agreement a host of countries, many U.S. allies, criticized the move. Many may do so again depending on how the dust — i.e. the votes — from the presidential election settles.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he favors signing the U.S. back up to the Paris Agreement. As of writing, ballots are still being counted. Several states that are key to unlocking a victory in the Electoral College have not been called, as millions of mail-in ballots remain to be counted. The Electoral College does not meet until December 14, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, and it isn’t until that body meets and casts its votes that a victor is officially declared.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Under the covering chaos of the U.S. presidential election, Washington finally — as expected — slipped out of the Paris Agreement. In doing so, many saw the Trump administration as laying aside all reasonable claim to global leadership when it comes to climate change. 

With reporting from the Associated Press.