The U.S. has officially become the first nation to quit the Paris climate agreement, even as the outcome of the country’s presidential race remains undetermined.
President Donald Trump, who’s fighting for re-election, moved to withdraw from the landmark environmental accord exactly one year ago, abandoning a global effort to curb carbon emissions and slow global warming. The U.S. exit formally took effect Nov. 4, the day after the vote.
The fate of the global climate now rests, in part, on who ends up in the White House. Former Vice President Joe Biden has said he will rejoin the Paris pact immediately if he wins. His clean-energy agenda is one of the most ambitious in the world, and could help significantly lower global emissions.
In contrast, Trump has spent the past four years promoting fossil fuels, rolling back environmental regulations and denigrating climate science. He is likely to spend a second term further hindering efforts to curb carbon emissions.
As of Wednesday morning, Biden had 238 electoral votes while Trump had 213, leaving both shy of the 270 needed to secure immediate victories.
“The next 10 years are really going to determine the future,” said Alden Meyer, U.S. director for the International Climate Politics Hub.
When President Barack Obama signed the deal five years ago, the U.S. pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. While the U.S. is no longer on track to meet that goal, it’s not too far off. Emissions now are down about 15% after local governments and private industry voluntarily lowered their own emissions, according to Meyer.
A Biden presidency could get the nation back on track. As the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, the U.S. could play an outsized role in lowering global emissions. If it joined all other Group of Seven nations in setting a net-zero carbon goal as Biden has pledged, 63% of the world’s emissions would be covered by government pledges, compared with 51% now, according to Climate Action Tracker.
America’s withdrawal initially prompted concerns that other nations would follow suit. Instead, world leaders have stepped up efforts to fight climate change. European Union ministers last month backed a binding 2050 climate neutrality goal. And in the past six weeks, China, Japan and South Korea have all committed to achieving carbon-neutral economies.
“We haven’t see the mass retreat from the Paris Agreement that some were warning of when the president made his plans to exit clear,” said Jesse Bragg, a spokesman for Corporate Accountability, an environmental campaign group.
The U.S. is exiting the Paris Agreement as soon as it can. Trump announced in 2017 his intention to pull out, but couldn’t start the process until a year ago. Under the terms of the deal signed in 2015 by Obama, nations weren’t allowed to make exit plans until three years after the pact entered into force, on Nov. 4, 2016.
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It’s designed to be harder to leave than it is to join. Re-entry would take effect 30 days after Biden notifies the United Nations of his intent in writing. That means the earliest Biden would be able to officially rejoin the deal would be Feb. 19, a month after he takes office.
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