What is the Paris climate agreement and why is the US rejoining?

By Helen Briggs
Science correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images

One of US President Joe Biden’s first acts in office was to start the process of rejoining the Paris climate deal – reversing Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw.

The historic agreement, which came into force in 2016, united nearly 200 countries in a global pact to tackle climate change.

What are the key elements of the Paris deal?

  • The Paris climate deal pledged to keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and preferably to 1.5C
  • Under the agreement, each country sets its own emission-reduction targets, known as national determined contributions (NDCs), which are reviewed every five years to raise ambition
  • Rich countries are required to help poorer nations adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy
  • UN scientists say limiting the rise to 1.5C could prevent small island states from sinking beneath the waves, help millions of people avoid the impacts of extreme weather and limit the chances of an ice-free Arctic summer

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe Paris deal was hailed as a landmark

Why did the US leave?

President Trump announced his intention to leave the deal, in 2017, saying letting countries such as India and China use fossil fuels while the US had to curb its carbon was unfair.

The withdrawal became official on 4 November 2020 – by chance, the day after he lost the presidential election.

The US, which has historically released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation, is the only one to have withdrawn.

How will the US rejoin?

The new administration has signed a statement accepting the terms of the agreement. It was sent to the United Nations, and the US is now set to formally re-enter the agreement in 30 days.

President Biden has pledged to make the fight against climate change a top priority of his administration and rejoin the agreement.

His special envoy on climate change, John Kerry, tweeted that Biden was “restoring America’s credibility and commitment” and that the world “must and will raise ambition” to tackle global warming.

How important is the US to the Paris deal?

US engagement is seen as critical to the success of key global climate talks in Glasgow in November.

The 2021 annual conference of the parties (Cop) is expected to finalise the rules of how the Paris agreement will operate in future.

And countries are expected to update their national carbon-cutting plans with tougher targets than they submitted in 2015.

The US will have to rebuild trust after being out of the climate fold for so long, observers say.

And much depends on action being taken to roll back changes made by the Trump administration

What are Joe Biden’s plans on climate change?

The president has an ambitious list of climate goals, including to:

  • put the US on a path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which scientists say could have significant implications for the 1.5C target
  • restore the US as a world leader in climate action

He has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as special climate envoy.

He has also cancelled the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried oil 1,200 miles from Alberta, in Canada, to Nebraska, in the US

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJohn Kerry signs the Paris accord, in 2016 – the former secretary of state will now be the US special climate envoy

How are Biden’s actions being greeted internationally?

With the US re-entering the Paris agreement, there were reasons for optimism, former EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard, who chairs the KR Foundation, said.

“There is a real possibility of having a real restart of the whole global climate agenda now,” she said.

Republic of the Marshall Islands climate envoy Tina Eonemto Stege said the world was looking to the Biden administration to reinvigorate commitment to the agreement.

But she warned only 45 countries had submitted their emission targets within the 2020 deadline.

“We are playing catch-up,” she said.

“As it did in 2016, the US is really central to driving ambition and action, not just by re-joining the Paris agreement but also by submitting an enhanced NDC that is aligned with the 1.5C temperature goal as soon as possible.”

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