US return to Paris climate pact: What's the big deal?

climate change

Demonstrators protest former president Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate change accord last year. The US has rejoined the agreement.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • $3 billion - Amount the US had pledged to the green climate fund.
  • 28% - The US agreed to cut its emissions by this percentage by 2025.
  • In 2017 the US accounted for roughly 16 per cent of global emissions.

The return of the US to the Paris Agreement is a huge relief to the world even as the devastating effects of global warming continue to be felt.

On his first day in office, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order to reverse Donald Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 accord on November 4, 2020.

The Paris Agreement seeks to limit global warming and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The withdrawal of the US, one of the world’s greatest greenhouse gas emitters, was seen as a big blow to limiting global average temperature below 2°C while pursuing efforts of keep warming below 1.5 °C.

Research shows that the US alone has accumulated more carbon dioxide emissions than any other country since the industrial revolution.

Withdraw from agreement

According to Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), in 2017 the US accounted for roughly 16 per cent of global emissions after it discharged 5.1 billion metric tonnes of energy-related carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The result of these emissions is a warmer climate and the effects thereof include increased droughts and flood, which affect Africa the most. In the agreement, 194 countries, including the US, signed a pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions and tackle global warming and climate change through the nationally determined contributions.

The US agreed to cut its emissions by between 26 and 28 per cent below its 2005 emissions by 2025.

But after former president Trump took office, on June 1, 2017 he announced that the US would be withdrawing from the agreement. In the next four years, the country failed to pursue any action in a bid to limits emissions.

As a result, the globe is warmer, with new research showing that the climate crisis could cause “dramatic increases” in the incidence and intensity of lake heat waves globally.

The new study published in Nature finds that average lake temperatures globally could be around 1.7°C hotter during heat waves by the end of the century, when compared to the period between 1970 and 1999, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to be very high.

The waves could last for as long as 95 days by 2100, from eight days in the late 20th century. And this would have devastating effects on fish and aquatic life, said R Woolway.

“The increased severity and duration of lake heat waves under climate change have already exposed aquatic organisms to novel and, in some cases, lethal conditions, leading to an increased risk of mass mortality events, such as fish die-offs,” he said.

The effects of global warming are evident in Kenya, with the Rift Valley lakes having risen to unprecedented levels over the last several years. Also, the country is currently witnessing another wave of locust invasion, putting food security in a precarious situation.

“I warmly welcome President Biden’s steps to re-enter the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and join the growing coalition of governments, cities, states, businesses and people taking ambitious action to confront the climate crisis”, said United Nation’s Secretary-General António Guterres.

Protect the vulnerable

In a previous press conference, Dr Mithika Mwenda, the Executive Director of PACJA, said: “We look forward to Biden unfreezing the remaining US$2 billion, as well as reversing all harmful policies which have been put in place by Trump.”

According to him, despite the US having pledged US$3 billion to the green climate fund, only $1 billion had been utilised before pulling out of the agreement.

“Millions of Africans are already dying from the adverse impacts of climate change, despite the US playing an insignificant role in creating the current crisis. America’s leadership in addressing climate change is not only sensible but fair to disproportionately affected communities in Africa and other developing countries,”  said Dr Mwenda.

But Africa contributes to only four per cent of the global emissions despite suffering the greatest effect. The US, besides funding some green programmes in the developing world, is expected to cut its emissions towards 2050. Some countries have committed to zero emissions by then.

“The climate crisis continues to worsen, and time is running out to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and build more climate-resilient societies that help to protect the most vulnerable,” said Guterres.

He said as the world looks forward to COP26 conference later this year, the US leadership is hastening global efforts towards net zero, including by bringing forward a new nationally determined contribution with ambitious 2030 targets and climate finance will be vital.

It will however take one month before the US is formally received back to the Paris Agreement.

According to the UN, a new instrument of acceptance of the Paris Agreement by the US was deposited with the Secretary-General on Wednesday, hours after Biden’s  inauguration.